Si prestas tu martillo, te prestaré mi hacha

On this latest episode of Departures, Robert Amsterdam speaks with an admired friend and colleague Dr. Anders Åslund, author of the new book, Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.

In his book, Åslund contends that in his eighteen years in Moscow, Putin has succeeded in establishing a Russian state and economy that are “exceedingly reminiscent” of those that existed in tsarist Russia, a far cry from the democratic state and liberal market economy that global observers had anticipated would inevitably follow the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to Åslund, Putin has accomplished this by constructing an “iron quadrangle” comprised of “four circles of power,” which are “vertical state power,” “big state enterprises,” Putin’s “cronies,” and “Anglo-American offshore havens,” respectively.

The consolidation of this iron quadrangle is the result of Putin’s years’ long effort to deinstitutionalize the Russian state, and devise a system that guarantees macroeconomic stability, but falls short of delivering economic growth. As Åslund describes, these circumstances will likely yield a Russia in regression, a nation that is increasingly patrimonial and, as a result, will accelerate the ongoing retreat of democracy. Should this continue unabated, global powers, particularly those in the West, may expect Putin to grow increasingly authoritarian, and in the tsarist tradition, grow evermore inclined to taking risks in seeking sources of legitimacy other than macroeconomic stability.

Source: robertamsterdam.com

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South Korean jets fired warning shots at a Russian military plane. South Korea’s defence ministry said two Russian bombers and a surveillance plane, plus two Chinese bombers, had violated its airspace (above barren islands also claimed by Japan). Reports from inside the Korean government said the Russians acknowledged the incursion and blamed it on malfunctioning equipment.
The Economist Espresso, 24 July 2019

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What is Vladimir Putin goal [sic] for Russia and the Russian people?
Dima Vorobiev, Former Soviet propaganda executive
Answered Jul 18

Russian Federation is run as a highly profitable commercial project of about 100,000 families, with President Putin and a circle of a few influential state-oligarchical clans at the top.

They have been very successful and ensured two decades of stable and relatively wealthy existence for the broad masses of our population.

Vladimir Putin’s goal for Russia and the Russian people is to perpetuate this project for as long as possible.

Below, a resident of St. Petersburg, hugely impressed by many successes of President Putin, uses his portrait for personal protection in his daily affairs against bad luck, evil spirits, and corrupt government servants.

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Source: Quora

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Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, does not belong to either of the parties in his populist coalition government. But today the former law professor will report to parliament on the allegedly grave misdemeanor of one. Prosecutors are investigating allegations that the hard-right Northern League negotiated with Russian intermediaries for funding worth tens of millions of euros. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, who was not at the meeting in Moscow and denies receiving money, at first refused to make a statement to parliament, but now says he will give his version of events. It might be thought the claims should be particularly damaging since they are backed by a purported recording of the discussions. But they seem to have done Mr. Salvini no harm. A poll at the weekend showed backing for the League had risen nearly three points, to 35.9%, since before the recording was made public. For now, Mr. Salvini seems bulletproof.
The Economist Espresso, 24 July 2019

Alexei Tsvetcoff: A Supremely Intelligible Speech

 

Vladimir Putin, “Address to Russians on the 2018 Pension Reform,” 29 August 2018

Alexei Tsvetcoff
Facebook
August 29, 2018

Putin’s speech was supremely intelligible. It boiled down to this. We could just as well not change the retirement age over the next ten years, but we are going to do it anyway merely because we want to do it. We are going to fuck each of you over to the tune of one million rubles at least, because we like lining our pockets with the money, and no opposition can do anything to stop it.

We are not going to raise the taxes of the oil and gas bourgeoisie, because we are the oil and gas bourgeoisie. The Pension Fund’s palaces and the palaces per se of the ruling class are beautiful, but there is no need to touch them. Let them be. Anyway, things could be a lot worse, believe you me.

The speech was an open declaration of class warfare on the majority on behalf of the ruling minority. It was a rude statement by the modern-day equivalent of Yuri Olesha’s Three Fat Men, a group of people rendered insolent by their impunity.

The tsar in his mercy granted indulgences. He took three years off the proposed new retirement age for women, and six months off the retirement age for the first cohort whom the reform will roll over, as well as promising guaranteed employment and property tax benefits for pre-pensioners, and so on.

This summer’s political upsurge has borne preliminary fruits, but they are decorative. The wave of opposition to the proposed reforms must rise higher and higher, and popular hatred must adopt really effective guises, meaning guises that frighten the regime.

A genuine mobilization of society would smash this reform, conceived by thieves, to smithereens, and maybe some other things as well—if such a mobilization occurred, of course.

If the entire country takes to the streets in September, we shall soon see a new speech by Putin, in which he says he has changed his mind. Now the authorities will be gagging, demonizing, isolating, and banning vigorous opponents of their mean-spirited reform on a daily basis. All of us, therefore, must become vigorous opponents of the reform.

Alexei Tsvetcoff is a well-known Marxist writer and manager of the Tsiolkovsky Bookstore in Moscow. Thanks to Valentin Urusov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Why Bother Reporting the News When It Reports Itself?

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If I were an MP in the Commons or a peer in the Lords, I would ask for a formal inquiry into how the BBC is wildly and, apparently, deliberately misreporting the so-called Russian presidential election campaign by constantly asserting that Vladimir Putin is incredibly popular, that his message of “strength and stability should be enough to persuade voters to give him another term” (I heard that gem on the late late news on Radio 4 last night) and that Alexei Navalny was not admitted to the race because of “previous corruption convictions.”

Only in every third or fourth report do BBC reporters and presenters even bother to hint vaguely that Navalny’s so-called corruption convictions were on trumped-up charges and explicitly meant to hobble and disable him at moments like this, when he is literally the only person in Russia with a political organization and campaign strategy capable of putting a serious dent in the myth of Putin’s popularity.

And it is a myth. A free and fair election—after a campaign run without assistance from the so-called law enforcement agencies (who now, apparently, are gearing up to go after Navalny for calling a boycott) and the other assorted thugs who have been routinely arresting and assaulting Navalny’s campaign workers and volunteers in large numbers all over Russia during the past year, and without a giant leg up from a mainstream media, especially the national TV channels, whose general demeanor gives you a sense of what television would have looked like had the Nazis had it in their agitprop arsenal—would return results that would surprise all the lazy reporters and “Russia experts” who have been aping the discredited pollsters at Levada-VTsIOM-FOM by perpetuating the Putin popularity myth these past seventeen years.

The fix was in from the moment the Family chose Petersburg’s incredibly corrupt ex-deputy mayor to succeed Yeltsin, and truly awful things for which lots of people should be serving life sentences were done to cement the succession in blood.

It’s only been downhill from here, including the period when oil prices were high, because they only discouraged whatever impulses for reform Putin may have had (although I see no evidence he had any such impulses).

There’s no reason to like Putin unless you’re a member of his inner circle, because the real economy has tanked long ago, rampant corruption has become the supreme governing principle, and the security services have launched a selective, targeted Great Terror Lite to remind anyone with a brain what “stability” really means: Putin and his criminal clique are determined to remain in power until they die of natural causes.

This stunning plan will have terrible consequences for Russia and the world. The very least honest news reporting organizations, supposedly devoted to balanced, objective journalism, can do is report the whole story I have just told in brief, instead of repeating the dangerous truisms and outright lies generated by the Kremlin and its minions. TRR

Enough Already?

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“Veterans of the Secret Services,” marquee in central Petersburg, 12 November 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Enough already?

For months, President Vladimir V. Putin has predictably denied accusations of Russian interference in last year’s American election, denouncing them as fake news fueled by Russophobic hysteria. More surprising, some of Mr. Putin’s biggest foes in Russia, notably pro-Western liberals who look to the United States as an exemplar of democratic values and journalistic excellence, are now joining a chorus of protest over America’s fixation with Moscow’s meddling in its political affairs. “Enough already!” Leonid M. Volkov, chief of staff for the anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, wrote in a recent anguished post on Facebook. “What is happening with ‘the investigation into Russian interference,’ is not just a disgrace but a collective eclipse of the mind.”

What the so-called Russian liberals, quoted in this New York Times article about how the continuing “fever” provoked by alleged Russian involvement in the 2018 US presidential election has been harming their mostly nonexistent cause by making Putin seem more powerful and craftier than he actually is, forget is that the United States is a democratic republic, all its obvious faults notwithstanding, not a kleptocratic tyranny, where the high crimes and misdemeanors imputed to the Kleptocrat in Chief and his cronies are never investigated, except by Alexei Navalny and the occasional journalist, and then only halfheartedly, because there is no division of powers in Putinist Russia and thus no independent judiciary, prosecutors or police investigators, not to mention the absence of an independent legislative branch.

So, the Ozero Dacha Co-op is free to run the country like a mafia gang running northern New Jersey.

In the US, on the contrary, the legislative branch and the judiciary, along with the relevant law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies, are simply obliged, because they, too, have sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution, to pursue any and all evidence that the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration has had extensive ties with Russian officials, and that the Kremlin additionally attempted to influence the outcome of the election via active measures including the massive manipulation of social networks. They must pursue all this to the bloody end, however long it takes and however much it costs.

To do otherwise would be a dereliction of duty on the part of the sworn high officials who are charged with protecting the Constitution, even if that means protecting it from Don Trump and Vladimir Putin, whom Russian liberals have literally no plan or intention of ever seeing out the door, for his crimes or his wildly incompetent governance.

In the process, our often hysterical and uneven press, as well as everyone and his mother, posting on those selfsame social networks, will have much to say about the whole kit and kaboodle, and much of it will be wrong, worthless, and crazy.

Plus, the whole mess will inevitably be politicized to the hilt, another thing that upsets certain Russians, whose Soviet upbringing and post-Soviet survivalism has made them loathe the hugger-mugger of politics, which is always a hugger-mugger when it’s real, not an epiphenomenon of all-Russian TV brainwashing sessions, whose aftereffects are measured in real time by fake pollsters.

Messy is how it works when you can’t be sent down to Mordovia for reposting the “wrong” thing on VK, as you can be in Russia.

If anything, this little collective five minutes of hate, on the part of so-called Russian liberals whose professions of love and respect for the US sound suspect when encapsulated this way, have only reinforced what I’ve thought for a long time.

There are healthy Russians, and plenty of them, who are more concerned with their families, jobs, hobbies, neighbors, and politics in their own country and neighborhood, etc., but the so-called Russian elites and the so-called Russian intelligentsia are obsessed with the US in a way that most Americans (believe me, I’ve been around the big block several times and have noticed very little interest in Russia among the vast majority of my American acquaintances, friends, relatives, coworkers, etc.) are not and never have been, except, perhaps, during the Red Scare, but I wasn’t there to witness it, and I suspect it was more of an elite phenomenon than a grassroots thing.

The Russian most obsessed with the US is, of course, Vladimir Putin. He’s so obsessed that he persuaded himself that the 2011–2012 popular protests against his regime were personally engineered, launched, and steered by Hillary Clinton and the US State Department.

So, given the chance to get back at his number one enemy in the US, he did what he could.

This doesn’t necessarily mean his influence won the election for Trump or was even crucial. But throwing up our hands and saying it ultimately doesn’t matter would be irresponsible. We have to know or at least find out as much as we can about what really was done and by whom, and if we have evidence that high officials committed crimes in connection with this alleged conspiracy, they must be prosecuted, tried and, if found guilty, punished.

There is also the matter of less powerful Russians than Putin, folks like the ones quoted in the article, who can discuss US politics until they are blue in the face (I’ve been around that big block, too, many times, and have witnessed this “political self-displacement” on many occasions). Part of the reason for this is that (or so such people think) there is no politics to discuss in Russia. Or no reason to discuss Russian politics. Or every reason not to discuss Russian politics because doing it too loudly and publicly might get you in trouble.

But the Russian talking classes have to have something to talk about, so they talk about the fake moral panics the regime tosses them like bones to dogs every couple of weeks—and US politics and culture, such as “high-quality” TV series on Netflix and such.

They talk about the US so much you would be forgiven for thinking that many of them are certain, often to the point of arrogance, that they know more about the US and everything American than Americans themselves.

What they do less and less often is discuss their own country, partly because they have all but reconciled themselves to the “fact,” without putting up a fight (the only possible exception among the folks quoted in the article is Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s righthand man) that Putin will essentially re-elect himself to a fourth term as president in March 2018, and so on till kingdom comes.

Putin can pull off that trick in the world’s largest country, and yet, argue other Russian liberals, we’re supposed to imagine he is utterly powerless at the same time?

This article is a bill of goods, and we don’t have to buy it. I would love to find out why Andrew Higgins was moved to write it, and why so many talkative, opinionated Russians think they bear no responsibility for letting their “powerless” president do whatever he pleases whenever he pleases.

Maybe they should work harder on that for a few years and forget about the US and its signal failings. Let the real Americans handle those, however muckily and gracessly they go about it. It’s their country, after all.

I’m certain such a live-and-let-live approach to the US would make Russian grassroots and liberal politics more exciting and productive. TRR

Breaking Bad

The Vicious Circle of Bad Governance
Vladimir Gel’man
Vedomosti
May 17, 2016

Why is the quality of governance in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries much worse than we would expect based on their level of socio-economic development? According to numerous international assessments of governance, they are sometimes on a par with the poor and underdeveloped countries of the Third World, lagging behind similar countries in Eastern Europe. They are typified by bad governance, whose symptoms are perversion of the rule of law (the unrule of law), endemic corruption, the low quality of government regulation, and ineffective government policies.

Post-Soviet bad governance appears not as a grab bag of discrete, particular defects but as a consequence of the prevailing political and economic order in these countries. Its most vital feature is the fact that rent extraction is the principal purpose and main content of governance at all levels. So the mechanisms of power and governance tend towards a hierarchy (the “power vertical”) with a single decision-making center that seeks a monopoly position, while the autonomy of economic and political actors within the country vis-à-vis the center is relative and can be arbitrarily altered and/or restricted. In turn, formal institutions (constitutions, laws, etc.) are a byproduct of the allocation of resources within the power vertical. They are meaningful as rules only to the extent they contribute to rent extraction. As part of the power vertical, the government administration is divided into organizations competing for access to rent and informal cliques.

Bad governance is the most important means of maintaining this political and economic order. Since the state is governed merely in order to extract rent, corruption in its various shapes and manifestations is an essential device for achieving these goals, while the poor quality of regulation and perversion of the rule of law contribute to the stability of the power vertical. Bad governance acts as a stable but ineffective balance, which is restored even in instances of deep external shocks such as regime change (e.g., Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan), while the state apparatus proves less and less capable of implementing structural reforms for improving government efficiency.

What are the causes of this state of affairs? What the post-Soviet countries have in common has been a coup d’état from within on the part of rent seekers in the administrative apparatus and influential members of the business world personally associated with them. In an effort to privatize benefits and socialize costs in the process of governing, these players have deliberately and purposefully established and maintained inefficient rules of the game. But since their planning horizons are short-term due to the risks of the regime’s being overthrown and the questionable prospects of a smooth succession, they have behaved, in Mancur Olson’s terms, like “roving” and not “stationary” bandits. They plunder the resources of states at all levels of governance, and the term kleptocracy, previously used to describe African countries, comes across not only as an op-ed writer’s gimmick but also as a fair description of the rule of a number of post-Soviet leaders. (In particular, Karen Dawisha analyzes the Russian regime in these terms.) The end result is a vicious circle. The machinery of bad governance has been reproduced under different rulers, and attempts to overcome it (if such attempts are made) have run into strong resistance and with a few exceptions (such as Georgia during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili) have produced modest outcomes in terms of the quality of public administration.

In the work of researchers and the jargon of experts and consultants, bad governance (not only in the post-Soviet countries) has usually been associated with the “poor quality of institutions” and an “unfavorable institutional climate.” Although the poor quality of institutions is an attribute of bad governance, it is merely a consequence of the poor quality of regulation and the absence of the rule of law, and not the cause of the phenomenon. Institutions themselves are the outcome of the balance of forces and the interests of key players. Substituting the diagnosis of a disease with a description of one of its symptoms leads to incorrect courses of treatment. The desire to change only formal institutions by borrowing advanced foreign know-how or cultivating the best specimens on domestic soil without fundamentally rethinking the political and economic order as a whole either produces no improvements or even changes the situation from bad to worse.

The emergence and establishment of authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet countries has generated an environment that promotes bad governance. The rare examples of high-quality public administration in autocracies may be briefly summarized by Dani Rodrick’s statement that for every Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore there are lots of Mobutus in the Congo. But electoral authoritarian regimes (such as Russia) are the worst option in terms of bad governance. They are typified by the politicization of public administration and economic management, which ranges from mobilizing voters at their workplaces to turning the state apparatus into a political machine for ensuring that voters vote for the ruling groups. As a consequence, a country is unable to develop decent incentives for improving the quality of public administration, in particular, regularly rotating senior personnel and making the upward career mobility of officials depend on achieved outcomes. On the contrary, the power vertical encourages officials to demonstrate political loyalty to the detriment of effective administration.

The paradox of post-Soviet countries is that even political regime change per se does not lead to a rejection of bad governance. On the contrary, it might even exacerbate the disease. Thus, although the fall of the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine in 2014 was followed by the emergence of a competitive democracy, the quality of public administration has not significantly improved since the days of Yanukovych. Often accompanied by a popular mobilization, the conflict among elites preserves the predatory nature of governance, involving rent extraction, even if it does lead to a change of ruling groups. The politicization of government and the economy and the incentivizing of loyalty at the cost of efficiency are inherent to post-Soviet competitive democracies almost to the same extent as electoral authoritarian regimes. However, given a favorable combination of other political conditions, democratization can open up a window of opportunity for the fundamental renewal not only of ruling groups but also the the entire state apparatus by breaking up previous hierarchies and effecting a series of structural transformations that can significantly reduce the detrimental effects of bad governance, if not vanquish it. Only in such cases does regime change not turn into a bad infinity that merely maintains the status quo in government. On the contrary, the entrenchment of ruling groups, limitation of vertical mobility, and restriction of channels for recruiting elites are means of maintaining bad governance: incentives for efficient management of the state and the economy are seriously undermined for the long term.

Although it is unrealistic to expect a rapid rejection of bad governance, numerous experts (e.g., Daniel Treisman) have suggested that as a result of long-term, stable economic growth and a generational change of leaders, the demand for rule of law and increase government efficiency would grow, thereby encouraging a clampdown on bad governance in the course of democratization, within a couple of decades. But how justified are these expectations when it comes to post-Soviet countries? There are no grounds for ruling out a different sequence of events. Governments can continue as before to handle the most serious challenges, avoiding disastrous failures, while maintaining the principles of bad governance unchanged. The emergence of a quasi-hereditary kleptocracy and a succession of corrupt and inefficient governments, focused on the extraction of rent, can put an end to any attempt to limit bad governance. Continuing the medical metaphor, it is worth noting that if a patient burdened by a serious illness not only ignores the advice of his doctors but also leads an unhealthy lifestyle, thus exacerbating his health problems, death is probably inevitable. Unlike individuals, however, states and societies do not die and disappear from the map of the world, however badly they are governed. Dominated by bad governance, they continue their existence, an existence that is often senseless, useless, and hopeless, complicating and worsening the lives of their citizens and increasing the risks for other states and societies.

Vladimir Gel’man is a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) and Helsinki University. The article is based on the report “The Political Basis of Bad Governance in Post-Soviet Eurasia: Outline for a Research Agenda,” published by EUSP Press. Translation and photos by the Russian Reader.

Fish Fingers All in a Line

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To all the Crimea-is-oursians out there and their fellow travelers in the “we won’t give back Crimea even after Putin goes” camp (e.g., Navalny and other members of the opposition) and their apologists in “the West,” just read the article I have linked to, below, as an April Fool’s joke.

It couldn’t be real, could it? I mean, because after the “return to home port” was accomplished, everything in Crimea has been just PEACHY! Hasn’t it?

And entre nous, the “Crimean Tatars,” who are they anyway? They sound like something you would slather on your fish fingers, not a real people with real rights.

Sorry for the interruption: you can go back to feeling smug about being real white people.

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Anton Shekhovtsov
March 29, 2015

Speaking about the motives of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the author [of the article “Why did we ‘surrender’ Crimea?”; here, in Russian] makes a common mistake: she deems the Putin regime ideological, as indicated by the fact she mentions ideas of the “Russian world” as a motivation for annexing Crimea and the subsequent aggression.

In reality, however, the Putin regime is a right-wing authoritarian kleptocracy. By default, its kleptocratic essence already presumes the absence of any underlying ideology. This is not to say that the regime’s elite does not espouse any ideas. It does. These ideas include anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, and anti-liberalism. However, all these ideas are negative (anti-), and even in their totality they do not produce anything that could be called an ideology, i.e., a positive system of beliefs.

However, the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime already highlights the fact that the regime may utilize discrete ideological elements in those cases when it is necessary to consolidate power. The regime instrumetnalizes elements of conservatism and Russian nationalism (the “Russian world”) and antagonistic imperialisms and plants them in Russian society to mobilize it and consolidate the kleptocracy. But these elements of real ideologies are not directly related to the nature of the regime. In other words, “Russian worlds,” “traditional values,” and “our grandfathers fought fascism” are fairy tales for the poor.

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Vasya Lozhkin, “We’ll Bring It All Back!”

However many Ukrainophobes there are in Russia and among the Putinist elite, the destruction of Ukraine as a state is not an end in itself for the Putin regime. The Russian kleptocracy needs the Russian-Ukrainian war only to maintain its hold on power in Russia.

Source: Facebook. Translated by the Russian Reader. Cartoon courtesy of Vasya Lozhkin’s LiveJournal blog

“We must assume they can put two and two together”

I’m not assuming anything, but it’s nice to dream.

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Vladimir Putin’s social compact with the Russian people is clearly defined: Putin agrees to give the Russian people rising living standards, jobs, regular pensions and economic stability. In return, the Russian people look the other way as Putin and his inner circle steal the country blind, destroy alternate media, and suppress all internal dissent. Those who witnessed (as I did) the economic chaos, unpaid pensions and salaries, runaway inflation, and harassment by mafia and petty officials of the Yeltsin years understand the appeal of Putin’s social compact. But Putin is no longer keeping up his end of the bargain. Will the Russian people continue to look the other way? That is the question.

[…]

Putin has not held up his end of the bargain he made with the Russian people. Let’s see what their reaction will be. We must assume they can put two and two together.

—Paul Roderick Gregory, “Ruble Hits New Low—Putin Can’t Keep His Promise to Russian People,” Forbes, December 16, 2014

Actually, literally everyone in my class last night, most of whom have something to do with business of some kind, have put two and two together quite easily, judging by what they were saying. (And some of them invoked the unwritten “social compact” Gregory refers to, above.) But this was also combined with the usual native fatalism, as if it were impossible to imagine anything beyond or better than the now totally bankrupt rule of the “world’s most powerful man.”

Mind you, it is one and the same über-capitalist magazine that has these contradictory wishes: hoping ordinary Russians can muster a resistance that it wouldn’t be happy to see in most other places or under different circumstances.

Image, above, courtesy of Law, Gospel: Action