Merle Haggard Drive

MerleHaggardDrive.jpg

In honor of the gentleman from St. Petersburg who just tried to tell me (on Facebook, of course) what kind of music I, a real American country boy should listen to, I will be listening to Merle Haggard all day today, from dawn to dusk.

The sheer snobbery and arrogance of the Petersburg intelligentsia never fail to amaze me. I would imagine even the Queen of England is more down to earth, friendly, and tactful than the “most educated people” on earth are.

Please refrain here from making comments about the late Mr. Haggard’s politics. They are no mystery to me, since I was born and grew up in the same country as he did. I was not a fan of his politics most of the time, to put it mildly, but I am a fan of his music.

The extent to which Putin-era Russians, from high officials to friends of friends, stick their often wildly ignorant noses in other people’s business is a measure of just how completely they have lost control of their own country’s politics, culture, history, literature, cinema, art, language, music, you name it.

If you do not speak and read Russian, thank Allah for His mercy, because it has not been an edifying spectacle at all observing the blackest reaction nearly everywhere you turn in the “Russian world,” high and low, for the past twenty years. {TRR}

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

We Change Our Minds like Socks, or, The Pollocracy’s Comeback

3Focus group drawing from the study “Autumn Change in the Minds of Russians: A Fleeting Surge or New Trends?” The first panels is labeled “Now.” The second panel shows a drunken Russia at the bottom of the stairs “in five years,” while “the US, Europe, Canada, China, [and] Japan” stand over it dressed in swanky business suits. The third panel is entitled “Friendship.” Source: Fond Liberalnaya Missiya

Experts Who Predicted Bolotnaya Claim Attitudes of Russians Have Changed
Vladimir Dergachov
RBC
December 24, 2018

Economists Mikhail Dmitriev and Sergei Belanovsky, and psychologists Anastasia Nikolskaya and Elena Cherepanova have authored a new report, “Autumn Change in the Minds of Russians: A Fleeting Surge or New Trend?” which they will present on Monday, December 24.

RBC has obtained a copy of the study. It was conducted as a follow-up to previous autumn opinion polls, which identified a loss of interest in foreign policy among Russians, growing dissatisfaction with domestic policy, and a collapse in reliance on the government.

How the Study Was Conducted
The experts combined qualitative sociology and psychological tests [sic], comparing the results with the Levada Center’s polling data. In October and November 2018, respondents in Moscow, Vladimir, Gus Khrustalny, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Saransk, Romodanovo (a village in Mordovia), and Ufa were surveyed as part of focus groups. In Moscow, a number of focus groups were convened involving public sector employees, including physicians, and university lecturers and researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN). There was also a mixed focus group featuring engineers, traffic police officers, and theater employees.

Peace Instead of Scandals
Previous surveys, conducted by Dmitriev and Belanovsky in April and May 2018, showed Russians largely supported the country’s foreign policy, although critical respondents said the country spent too much money on supporting other countries and used foreign policy to distract people from issues at home. Six months later, the statements made by respondents revealed a demand for a peaceable foreign policy. “Spy scandals, falling missiles, certain statements by Russian politicians, and the protracted war in Syria” have led to a downturn in support for Russia’s foreign policy, the report claims.

In the May 2018 study, respondents were not yet pessimistic about the future. In the October surveys, however, a majority (68%) of respondents had a negative attitude towards the future. They envisioned a Russia that, in five years, was weakening and lagging behind other countries in terms of progress, a country whose populace was intimidated and did not have the right to vote.

They Predicted the Bolotnaya Square Movement

In March 2011, Dmitriev and Belanovsky, then employed at the Center for Strategic Development (TsSR), presented a report in which they alleged a profound political crisis had emerged, and support for Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev and United Russia had fallen off. They predicted increasing dissatisfaction with the political system. Less than a year later, sparked by insufficiently [sic] fair and transparent elections to the State Duma, large-scale protests kicked off in Russia.

Self-Expression Instead of Survival
In the May study, the demand for justice had increased dramatically, shunting aside the previously dominant demand for a strong leader. In October, the invocation of distributive justice (a more equal distribution of income and assets) gave way to the demand for procedural justice (equality of all before the law).

The respondents in all the focus groups felt physical needs and government welfare were less important than the need for respect, liberty, and leaders capable of voicing these values. Harsh statements by public officials on social issues (i.e., that people could live on 3,500 rubles a month by eating macaroni, etc.) had provoked increasing irritation. Concerning the raising of the retirement age, the respondents negatively assessed the suddenness of the decision and the way it was made behind closed doors.

Ninety-four percent of respondents claimed they no longer relied on the government, only on themselves. Sixty-three percent of respondents expressed a willingess to contribute personally to the country’s progress. This contribution was conceived in different ways: from a willingness to pay high taxes and be involved in charitable work, to grassroots activism and educational outreach. According to a Levada Center poll, 60% of respondents felt responsible and were willing to make personal efforts to facilitate improvements in Russia.

A Demand for Change
The May study testified to a slackening of reliance on a strong leader among Russians. In October, the analysts registered a demand for new leaders who would respect people, be honest and democratic [sic], admit to their mistakes, and act in the people’s interest. These qualities were bound up with the values of self-expression, which were foregrounded by respondents.

These qualities had little in common with the positive and negative qualities Russians [sic] had used to assess Vladimir Putin in a July poll by the Levada Center (stability, respect, personal charm, capacity for compromise, firmness, and foresight). The discrepancy in criteria was a sign of the rudimentary emergence of counter-elite sentiments [sic], the researchers warned.

A growing demand for change was noted among the respondents. Up to 76% of respondents would be willing to support temporarily painful reforms vital to overcoming the crisis in Russia. Russians no longer demanded immediate improvements. They were willing to wait and endure hardship for the sake of a positive ultimate income.

The respondents had almost no substantive notions of the necessary reforms. The experts compared public opinion to an “empty vessel” waiting for new leaders who inspired confidence.

None of the focus groups voiced aggression towards the regime, but the willingness to get involved in social movements had grown. The demand for respect and freedom prevailed over other demands, and thus the struggle for respect was imagined by the respondents as peaceable and legitimate.

Negativism towards the regime was no longer associated with a demand for populism, whose tokens include the appeal to distributive justice and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Frustation of Public Sector Employees
The report devotes a entire section to moods in the study’s public sector worker focus groups. The researchers discovered the highest level of tension among these people.

Public sector employees were frustrated not because of financial problems [sic], but because of the sector’s irrational organization [sic]. For example, due to the May 2012 decree on raising salaries, the managers of many public sector organizations took some workers off payroll, dramatically increasing the workload of other employees. The respondents were also dissatisfied with the avalanche of reports due to increasing bureaucratization, the chronically poor quality of management, and the fact that personal loyalty to bosses had replaced professionalism in the management hierarchy.

Three Scenarios
According to the experts, these trends indicate Russian public opinion has moved beyond the “stasis” of the post-Crimean consensus. They paint three possible scenarios for further changes in public opinion. The first would involve returning to “rallying around the flag,” typical of the post-Crimean period. This scenario would become a reality if international conflicts involving Russia escalated dramatically.

The second scenario would involve a rollback to counter-elite populism [sic] due to negative economic changes.

The third scenario foresees the consolidation of new values in the public’s mind over a lengthy period. This turn of events is likely if the status quo in the economy and foreign policy is maintained, that is, given sluggish economic growth and the absence of intense international conflicts. The experts cite Iran as an example of a country where this scenario has come true [sic]. Eighty percent of Iranians were born after the Islamic Revolution and have no experience of life under the previous regime. Due to the economic difficulties caused by western sanctions, young Iranians are tired of permanent crisis and disapprove of the country’s costly expansionist foreign policy. The unfavorable socio-economic conditions have a generated a demand for a alternative secularized and westernized lifestyle among young people.

In this scenario, the experts suggest altering the way the regime interacts with the populace in order to diminish its growing negativity. This is doable as long as the populace manifests no aggression towards the regime and is open to constructive dialogue.

The researchers note this scenarios contradicts the prevailing international trend of populists taking power. Unlike the societies of many developed countries, Russians have not descended into archaic populism and “social infantilism,” displaying instead increased social maturity and responsibility for the state of affairs in Russia [sic].

A Long-Term Shift
Political consultant Dmitry Fetisov generally agrees with the study’s findings. He links society’s growing demand for a peaceful foreign policy with the fact the Kremlin demonstrated a successful example of this policy during the 2018 FIFA World Cup [sic],  and the critical attitude of public sector employers towards the regime with the pension reform. Fetisov argues, however, that these trends could change depending on how the Kremlin acts.

Political scientist Nikolay Mironov is certain these shifts in public opinion are long term. He argues the trends described in the study have been caused by the post-2014 economic stagnation. Mironov does not believe a return to the “rally around the flag” consensus is possible, even in the event of international conflicts, unless they impinge on Russian territory. Mironov concludes what is needed are large-scale economic reforms and an easing of foreign policy.

Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov also notes the growing criticality of respondents towards officialdom and public fatigue from assistance to other countries [sic]. However, Volkov argues it is wrong to chart changes in public opinion by comparing surveys of focus groups, rather than using quantitative research. Fetisov likewise points to the study’s lack of representativeness, as it is based on comparing the opinions of different focus groups.

Translated by the Russian Reader

This article and the research paper it purports to summarize and analyze should be read with a huge spoonful of salt.

First, “public opinion” polls in Russia are wildly unreliable, as I have tried to show over the years on this website, often with a leg up from likeminded Russian journalists and researchers.

Second, this study, apparently, is a funhouse mirror image of the usual “Putin’s wild popularity” poll. The economists and psychologists who wrote the report set out to detect a “positive” sea change in Russian public opinion and, God willing, they found it, by offering their focus group respondents a weak-tea pipe dream they obviously dream themselves. If that dream seems rife with contradictions, it is, although the researchers seem utterly unaware of them.

Third, even in a country as messy, corrupt, and authoritarian as Russia, the idea that people can rely only on themselves is absurd. Of course, they rely on the government for lots of things, at least if they are living in more or less large towns and cities. To the extent that libertarianism has become popular here, it has done so only as a consequence of the prevailing black political reaction, as cultivated by the Putinist state and its propaganda organs.

On the other hand, we are supposed to imagine these newly minted libertarians would be simultaneously willing to pay high taxes and endure hardships to make their country a better place, and yet this is supposed to happen without the “social infantilism” of “developed countries” where people protest on the streets against elites.

Given that the once-mighty RBC has long been a shadow of its former self, I was tempted to write this passage off as ad-libbing on the part of their reporter, but, in fact, he merely paraphrased the report’s authors, to wit:

В отличие от обществ многих развитых стран, население которых продолжает скатываться популистскую архаику и «социальный инфантилизм», российское население неожиданно для всех начинает демонстрировать возросшую социальную зрелость и ответственность за положение дел в стране. Эти качества в наибольшей мере ассоциируются с модернизированной системой ценностей, характерной для развитых стран до того, как их стала охватывать волна контрэлитного популизма.

“In contrast to the societies of many developed countries, whose populace continues to slide into archaic populism and ‘social infantilism,’ the Russian populace has surprised everyone by beginning to show increased social maturity and responsibility for the state of affairs in the country. These qualities [were] associated with the modernized value system of the developed countries before the wave of counter-elite populism engulfed them.”

As this blog has shown over the last eleven years, I have often been among the first to celebrate and chronicle emergent grassroots resistance and social movements in Russia, but the people who wrote the passage above were engaging in wishful thinking, not scholarship. If anything, their counterintuitive, baseless conclusion shows the contradictions of the newfangled method of governance at arm’s length I have dubbed the “pollocracy.”

The pollocracy has been used by the regime to monitor “public moods” while also explicitly and aggressively shaping that mood by asking pointed questions that countenance only certain answers.

On the other hand, it is used by the regime AND its allegedly liberal pseudo-critics to, alternately, register tremors of discontent among an otherwise disenchranchised and disempowered populace, and demonstrate these exact same people are routinely subject to all sorts of illiberal, irrational populist delusions and phobias, thus making them unfit to govern themselves.

Finally, the pollocracy has been used as a substitute for actual, full-fledged grassroots political involvement. A populace that “slides” into “archaic populism” and “social infantilism” is one thing (a bad thing), but a populace that meekly agrees to confine its dissent to skewed public opinion polls and hokey focus groups is both “socially mature” and not a threat to anyone, least of all to the current Russian regime.

It is especially telling these “socially mature” focus groups expect, allegedly, a less aggressive Russian foreign policy to emerge ex nihilo, merely because they wish it into existence in the safety of their anonymous focus groups. God forbid they should have to organize a national anti-war movement on their own. {TRR}

Free Edem Bekirov!

15447318032279451Edem Bekirov.  Photo courtesy of Vector News

Ayder Muzhdabaev
Facebook
December 28, 2018

Watch the footage we shot of Edem Bekirov. Then read what the well-known Kyiv musician Mitya Gerasimov has written.

“I’m sitting in my parents’ kitchen in Kazan. In its news bulletin, Echo of Moscow, a supposedly liberal radio station, reports that a terrorist has been detained on the Crimean border, the member of an armed band. He has been accused of storing and transporting weapons and explosives. His name is not mentioned, but it is clear they are talking about our friend Edem Bekirov, a Crimean Tatar from Novooleksiivka in Kherson Region.

“Edem is an ill, elderly man who has had heart bypass operations and a leg amputated due to diabetes. Before the latest operation, he went to Kyiv to see his mom. On the border, he was abducted by men in masks. For a time, nothing was known about his whereabouts. Then they let him call home from the FSB’s Simferopol office. He had not been given anything to eat or drink for two days or been taken to the bathroom. He was not permitted to take bandages to dress the unhealed wound on his stump or the medicines that keep him alive. He needs to take sixteen pills a day.

“The Russian authorities have been slowly killing Edem in a remand prison for over two weeks. The day before yesterday, the so-called court dismissed the appeal in his case. The radio reports the detained man associated with the terrorist group led by Lenur Islamov. They apparently meant the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, where Edem’s daughter works.

“Everyone knows Crimean Tatars do not kill anyone or carry out terrorist attacks. They have a principled stance of nonviolent resistance to the occupiers. The cartridges and twelve kilos of explosives that Edem, one-legged and ill, was supposedly taking somewhere is the same nonsense they made up about the so-called terrorist militant Oleg Sentsov. I remember watching Russian television in early 2014, before the annexation. It was footage of Grushevsky Street in Kyiv: Molotov cocktails, burning tires, snowdrifts. The announcer explained to viewers they were seeing Crimean Tatars rioting in Simferopol.

“There is the pre-New Year’s hustle and bustle on the streets of our cities: lanterns, New Year’s trees, shopping, traffic jams. Like many other Crimean political prisoners, Edem Bekirov will ring in his new year behind bars. We must do everything we can to publicize his plight. We have to shout about it on every street corner. We have to get him out of jail before it’s too late.”

That is the Happy New Year we are having.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Щасливого Різдва!

thugocratic council.jpegA recent meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin. Image courtesy of kremlin.ru

I am not sure what to do with the canard, beloved of “anti-imperialists” the world over, that, because Ukraine has been less than perfectly governed, has been lousy with human rights violations, and has featured an inordinate number of neo-Nazis and other unsavory characters, it has deserved what Putinist Russia has been doing to it since 2014.

If “anti-imperialists” were consistent, they would want the same fate visited on every other country that is badly governed and has a dicey human rights record. I imagine that would mean a hundred or more countries would have to be invaded simultaneously to right all the wrongs in our world, at least as these wrongs are seen, allegedly, by “anti-imperialists.”

This begs the question of why a country with an even worse human rights record, a country governed by a tiny clique of unbelievably corrupt, violent secret police officers who have no intention of ever yielding power to any other group, much less to the country’s people, was the best qualified to invade Ukraine and show it the “anti-imperialist” light. {TRR}

Let’s Give In to Russian Blackmail

nod-constitution day-1“The Russian Constitution: The Basic Law or Legal Sabotage?” Front page of a newspaper handed out on the streets of Petersburg by memberx of NOD (National Liberation Movement) on December 12, 2018, celebrated as Constitution Day in Russia. This article argues that Russia’s current constitution, adopted in 1993, was drafted by CIA agents working under the cover of USAID. Their goal, allegedly, was to colonize Russia by subjugating its sovereignty to international law.

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Don’t Let Russia Leave the Council of Europe
Yuri Dzhibladze and Konstantin Baranov
oDR
December 13, 2018

Those who wish to punish the Kremlin for its aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are missing the target: it is not the Russian government, but the Russian public who will suffer if the country leaves the Council of Europe.

After the Kerch Strait incident, proponents of pushing Russia out of the Council of Europe seem to have got additional justification for their position in a discussion that rages in the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). In fact, the potential costs of this departure appear to be too high and far-reaching—not only for the Russian society, but for the whole of Europe.

More than four years since its delegation has been deprived of voting and participation rights in the PACE, Russia is now a step away from leaving the Council of Europe – either at its own initiative or as a result of expulsion for non-payment of its membership fees. In recent months, the situation has reached a deadlock due to an uncompromising position of both the Russian authorities and their critics in the PACE.

Those who wish to punish the Kremlin for its aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere miss the target: it is not the Russian government, but the Russian public who would suffer the most should the country leave the Council of Europe. Since 1996, when Russia joined the organisation, for millions living in the country (including nationals of other states), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has been an ultimate hope for justice, which they cannot find in Russia. In this period, almost 2,500 judgements have been delivered to Russia. In 2017 alone, the state paid over 14.5 million euros as just satisfaction to victims. The judgments have had a significant positive impact on Russian laws and judicial practice, despite their implementation being far from ideal and counting to roughly one-third of cases. Should Russia depart from the Council of Europe, the scope of human rights problems in the country will grow exponentially, including a threat of speedy reinstatement of the death penalty.

The potential consequences would go far beyond the deterioration of the internal situation. This move would not resolve the issue of the annexed Crimea or put an end to the armed conflict in Donbass. On the contrary, expelling the violating country would demonstrate the weakness of the European system of protection of human rights and the rule of law in dealing with such gross violations.

What is more, Russia’s withdrawal would definitely worsen conditions of citizens of Ukraine and other countries who are held in Russian prisons and face unfair trials, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. It would also result in a denial of the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to inhabitants of Russia-controlled Crimea. It would eliminate effective guarantees from deportation for refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Finally, the practice of expulsion of a member state might trigger other countries to leave the Council and deter Belarus from returning to a special observer’s status at the PACE.

Politicians should assume full responsibility for making the choice that may define Europe’s future and work towards a solution that would preserve the common European legal framework and space for critical dialogue aimed at promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law on the entire territory of Europe, including Russia.

We do not demand to “give in to blackmailing.” Lifting all restrictions on the Russian delegation in the PACE would be indeed unprincipled. However, finding a reasonable solution, in our view, would be a courageous decision to take responsibility and to advance the core values of the organisation by allowing the critical dialogue to continue. Amending the PACE rules of procedure – restricting national delegations’ rights only within the Assembly itself and not depriving them of the voting rights in elections of non-PACE mandates—including ECtHR judges, Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary General—appears such a legally sound and reasonable solution.

Threats by Russian officials to leave the Council of Europe are not just a bluff to raise the bargaining stakes. There are many influential people in the Russian political establishment in favour of isolationist policies who actually want the country to withdraw. If a reasonable solution is not found before next spring, Russia’s authorities will not wait for the official discussion of its potential expulsion at the Committee of Ministers in June 2019 and will announce the withdrawal from the Council before.

It should be clear to everyone: Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe would not stop human rights violations and halt the authoritarian backslide in our country, or prevent the Kremlin’s aggressive behaviour in the international arena. Instead, it would put an end to a difficult struggle of Russian civil society to make Russia an important part of Europe on the basis of shared norms and values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. It will turn a large territory in Europe into a legal “grey zone” for decades to come.

The authors represent a group of Russian human rights defenders who recently issued a Memorandum on the crisis in relations between the Council of Europe and the Russian Federation.

About the authors

Yuri Dzhibladze is a founder and president of Moscow-based Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights and advocacy coordinator at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. He has worked on human rights, democracy, and international organisations since the late 1980s.

Konstantin Baranov is member of the Coordinating Council and international advocacy coordinator at the Youth Human Rights Movement, an international NGO enjoying participatory status with the Council of Europe. He is an expert on the protection of civil society space and fundamental freedoms in Russia and the post-Soviet area.

NB. This article was originally published by oDR under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence

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When will Russia stop behaving like the enemy of Western Europe?
Dima Vorobiev, I worked for Soviet propaganda
Quora
Answered Feb 18

Russia is not the enemy of the Western Europe. The disruptive policy of President Putin is aimed at (1) weakening the political and military dominance of the US in Europe and/or (2) full or partial acceptance by the West of the following list of Russia’s political objectives:

  • Recognition of Crimea as Russian territory
  • Total freeze on expansion of NATO. No membership for Sweden, Finland, Ukraine or Georgia.
  • No NATO bases in the Baltics, Poland, Czech republic and Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Removal of the American anti-ballistic bases in Central Europe.
  • Finlandization of Georgia, Ukraine and guarantees of such arrangement for Belarus, in case it gets a pro-Western government in the future.
  • Guarantees of unhindered land connection through Lithuania between the Russian heartland and the exclave of Kaliningrad. The unhindered transit through the Suwalki gap would be very useful for Russia as a gauge of the level of determination on the part of NATO in the case of a swift escalation in tensions.
  • Recognition of Russia’s right to permanent military presence in the Mediterranean (through bases in Syria and possibly in Libya or other places)
  • Repeal of all sanctions against Russian oligarchs, their companies and sectoral interests.

If the West won’t agree to such a new global security arrangement, the current confrontation will continue, with variations only in the level of tensions. Because of the technological gap, the Russian military-industrial complex will increasingly depend on China for high-tech components for our weapons systems. Russian economy will also be more and more streamlined to accommodate the needs of Chinese manufacturing.

This stalemate can continue for many years, unless one of the following happens:

  1. Unexpected massive deterioration of economy in Russia.
  2. Low-probability, high-impact catastrophe in the US or Europe that makes the West seek help from Russia
  3. Power shift in Russia with full revision of national policy. (Highly unlikely with President Putin still in power).

Squandering Its Way to Superpowerdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by the Russian Reader