Saturday, August 16, 2008

The new Russia today: Is it just the old soviet KGB in charge, now unfettered by communism?

While it's great that Russia is no longer exporting a dangerous ideology, nor pointing nuclear missiles at us, things are far from jolly, and there are many reasons to be concerned.

I thought I read somewhere that Solzhenitsyn said about post-communist Russia, that the West mistakenly thinks of Russia as a "young democracy", when in fact it hasn't even become a democracy yet. That might go a long way in explaining what we are seeing there today. From Paul Jenkins, BBC News:

Russian journalism comes under fire

In April 2001, the previously independent Russian TV channel NTV was taken over by the giant Gazprom industrial conglomerate.

The protests by NTV's journalists and television employees against what they saw as the state clamping down on their freedom were dramatic and passionate.

Gazprom's replacement as chief of NTV, Boris Jordan (an American), has since been deposed, and all major television stations in Russia have been brought under state control.

TV news reports on Chechnya and President Vladimir Putin have to meet with the Kremlin's approval.
Journalism is further undermined by the fact that powerful businessmen routinely commission stories in the press for cash.


The Glasnost Defence Foundation, a Russian NGO representing journalists under threat, claims that 130 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1991. But, as Ivanov's case illustrates, proving conclusively that each and every one of them was murdered for their journalism is nigh on impossible in Russia.

Russia has more than 22,000 newspapers, but almost all are owned by pro-government or powerful business interests that constrain their reporting.


Valery Ivanov, the first murdered editor of the Togliatti Observer, wrote about the sacrifice some Russian journalists make.

"In this struggle, journalists are dying. Using every possibilities to compel independent professionals to write according to their wishes, corrupted power uses assassination," he said.

"This is the tragic price that Russian society is paying for freedom of speech and a free press."

Russia's Number One citizen, President Vladimir Putin, has a different perspective:

"Russia has never had a free media, so I don't know what I am supposed to be impeding," he said on 26 September 2003.

(bold emphasis mine) Read the whole thing for examples and case histories of murderous suppression. Shocking. True journalism has become impossible.

Without a free press to hold government accountable, what kind of government do you get? Edward Lucas at the MailOnline provides us a detailed look in his lengthy article, published in January of this year. Some excerpts follow:

Putin: the brutal despot who is dragging the West into a new Cold War
[...] The extraordinary thing is that Vladimir Putin hardly seemed worth a footnote to Russian history when the ailing Boris Yeltsin named him Prime Minister in 1999.

Few realised that the taciturn bureaucrat with a taste for judo was the harbinger of a silent putsch that would put the old KGB in charge of the Kremlin, with chilling consequences not only for Russia, but for the world.

The "siloviki" (literally "men of power"), as the spooks are called, have transformed Russia.

They took over a pluralist country with a lively Press and strong pro-Western orientation, though still reeling from the Soviet economic collapse and the looting and corruption that followed it.

Many at home and abroad hoped that a few years of heavy-handed rule by sinister strongmen would be the price of freedom and security.

They were wrong. The costs of Putin's KGB putsch have been colossal. Russia today is the epitome of bullying and crookedness.

The independent media have shrivelled, with television in particular coming almost completely under the authorities' control.

Almost every channel for complaint and dissent is blocked. Judicial and bureaucratic harassment, as well as physical threats, deter all but the bravest from speaking out. The authorities increasingly use forcible incarceration in psychiatric hospitals, the most loathsome weapon in the Soviet arsenal of repression, against their critics.

No wonder most international rankings no longer count Russia as a "free country"; no wonder they now list it as one of the most corrupt in the industrialised world.

That is a shameful retreat from the hopes of the 1990s.

Yes, living standards in Russia have soared under Putin, and most Russians believe they are living in a golden age.

This is hardly surprising, given that the price of oil - a resource the country has had in abundance - has risen some five times since Putin came to power.

And in a country where the media has been annexed for pro-Putin propaganda, is it not understandable that his regime has popular support?

In truth, Russia is being run by a corrupt, incompetent and despotic regime, and the huge windfall of high oil prices is being squandered.

Now is the time to modernise Russia, using the vast influx of petro-roubles, but there is no sign this is happening.

The oil and gas will not last for ever - their production is flat or falling and Russia is suffering power shortages; public services are a disgrace and the infrastructure pitiful.

Grand plans are everywhere: Russia says it will spend a trillion dollars on public investment projects in the coming years.

But the evidence so far is that this money is at best stolen, and at worst simply wasted.

After eight years of Mr Putin's rule, there is little improvement in roads, railways, power stations and pipelines.

Abysmal standards of public health, dangerous workplaces, endemic alcoholism and dreadful road safety make male life expectancy only 58.6 years - worse than in Laos or Yemen.

The so-called golden age is as phoney as Russia's elections that put Mr Putin and his cronies in power time after time.

When his hand-picked successor Dmitri Medvedev "wins" the presidential election next month, the nameplates on the doors may change, but the political system Mr Putin and his fellow siloviki has created will stay: impenetrable to outsiders, impervious to criticism and lubricated with vast sums of money obtained corruptly.

Mr Putin is reckoned to be worth $40 billion.

One source of this cash - though denied by all concerned - is an extraordinarily profitable Swiss-based oil trading firm that seems to have the miraculous knack of gaining almost limitless supplies of cut-price Russian crude oil to sell on the world market. [...]

(bold emphasis mine) There is much more, it's a long article, but worth reading for those who want to know more about Russia today. The author talks about the many new ways in which Russia today is a threat. But if it's a new Cold War, it's a different kind of Cold War, and a different kind of Russia. It's worth reading the whole thing.

There are those who are insisting that Russia is the enemy, and that we should go to war to defend Georgia. At this point I tend to agree with Joshua Trevino, who has said about War in the Caucasus:

[...] If there is a rationale for American action, it lies in American self interest in showing that America’s friends may count upon it. Georgia fought alongside the US in Iraq, and there is some debt owed for that. In that vein, America might commit itselve to resupply – though not direct to forces in the field – and it might guarantee Georgian sovereignty, though not Georgian territorial integrity. Short of a threatened extermination of Georgia (which does not seem at issue), there is nothing at stake here to justify a US-Russia war. Those accustomed to invoking appeasement and Munich at moments of foreign crisis may recoil at this – but that historical parallel is barely applicable here. Russian Putinism, for all it rightly repels our moral sensibilities, is not an existential foe of the West like Nazism, Communism, or Islamism. Its advance is not intrinsically America’s loss. [...]

(bold emphasis mine) I am not saying we should ignore real threats created by Russia, but neither should we exaggerate them. Joshua recommends a policy of containment towards Russia. At this point it seems prudent. Some people might call that a New Cold War; some aspects of containment might be like that, but lets keep it in proportion. And we must remember that Russia is still in the process of change. While trying to contain it's harmful actions, lets also give it some incentives to change for the better.

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