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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Guardian Correspondent Hypnotized by Putin

On July 31st, the Guardian published an article full of Russophile gibberish from a Russia correspondent named Nick Patton Walsh (the reason the usually insightful Guardian was compelled to print this nonsense is that Walsh was giving up his post as Russia correspondent and writing his tender goodybe). The article, with running commentary from La Russophobe, appears below.

Shortly after the article appeared, a Russian wrote to question the validity of Walsh's conclusions, and his concerns were published by the Guardian as a letter to the editor. Here is the text (the fact that the Guardian printed it shows how just how wacky Walsh's swan song really was):

Nick Paton Walsh (How I learned to love Vlad, G2, July 31) gives Vladimir Putin credit for something that is unlikely to be the result of the Russian president's efforts. I don't know what Paton Walsh means by the "collapse" that Putin has supposedly rescued the country from. I've lived in Russia all these years, and though things were pretty chaotic in the late 1990s, I can't record any indication that the nation was heading for a collapse.

Nor can the "current of slow and steady change" be put down to Putin. It began before he took power, and is one of those "self-healing" processes that emerge in societies in times of chaos. The process Paton Walsh is talking about began after the 1998 financial crisis. Around the spring of 1992, the Russian economy, devastated by the upheavals and pseudo-reforms of perestroika, suddenly began to pick up and kept moving upwards almost right until the 1998 crisis sent it haywire again.

In fact, Putin's policy of political repression is putting brakes on the present-day stabilisation process. Developments such as the Yukos affair or the gas row with Ukraine undermine international confidence in Russia, among other things putting off potential investors and pushing shares down.

With its clampdowns on freedom of speech and its lack of transparency, it is also an excellent breeding ground for corruption, which, despite what Paton Walsh says, is as rampant as ever.

Andrei Skvarsky
Moscow, Russia
La Russophobe always finds it greatly heartening to see that there are still Russians left in Russia who are unfraid to speak the truth, even when it means undercutting pro-Russian propaganda. In fact, she has always remarked on the irony that foreign Russophiles usually fail to grasp: Most Russians instinctively reject Russophile words of praise from foreigners, which they view as suspect, and they usually have much more respect for foreigners who freely speak their minds regarding Russian faults. Russians often secretly revel in such statements, which they fear to utter themselves. But unlike the yahoo that Mr. Svarksy was writing about, La Russophobe doesn't conclude from the existence of such people that Russia is bound for glory. Russia has always had such people, and it's always been sliding into oblivion. Every time a Peter or Lenin or Putin comes along, the Russophiles get hypnotized (and lots of others get seduced by the idea that the don't have to worry about Russia).

And now for the rubbish (it's so shockingly awful and ignorant that it hardly needs needling from LR, but we provide a bit anyway; notice how even someone who is trying to express love for Putin inevitably exposes such a horrifying litany of outrage that he seems foolish):

HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE VLAD

As it feels like a sin, then this must be a confession. I have been in Moscow for four and a half years, reporting on the presidency of Vladimir Putin - its slow erosion of democratic freedoms, its savage disregard for the individual, its petro-dollar arrogance. I've been reflexively critical, due to the obvious truth that the battered Russian people deserve something better. They have done for centuries.

But now my time here has come to an end, I need to confess: I am becoming something of a Putin fan. I have witnessed many things that make this stance unsupportable: the morgue near Beslan that, on September 4 2004, smelled of 186 dead, burned and contorted schoolchildren after a bungled military siege; the hostages dragged unconscious on October 23 2002 from the Nord Ost theatre in Moscow after another siege, and dumped on their backs by emergency workers to choke on their tongues in the early-morning snowfall; Putin sitting alongside Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovich at a Soviet-style military parade on October 28 2004, days before Yanukovich tried to steal the presidential election; Lubov Tkach, the wife of a Russian miner who disappeared during an accident, sitting in November 2003 near a large pile of coal in her one-room flat, ill and unable to afford medicine but watching a huge colour TV that had been bought for her in compensation. LR: This is really classic Russophelia. He has witnessed many facts which make his stance "unsupportable" and yet he adopts it anyway. That's the basic definition of propaganda, or someone who has been victimized by it (or someone who has been bribed).

These low points since my arrival in March 2002 seem almost surreal in their stupidity and cruelty. But beneath these moments of brutality there has been a current of slow and steady change. Money is big here. People love it. Each time you attempt to craft an epithet about the Russian people, they spring up and contradict you. But all the same, it is fair to say that the poor feel jealousy towards the rich rather than ideological revulsion. There is nostalgia about Soviet times, yet, as countless people have told me, "We lived well back then, but it was a nightmare." Now, in the main, people just want a nicer life. LR: Is this unitelligible gibberish, or is it just me?

Moscow is today less a city riven by the blacked-out BMWs and banditry of the 1990s, and more a cluster of chain stores and family saloons. Under Putin, the retail class has been born. Travel agents and restaurateurs - not professors and doctors - are the new bourgeoisie. In the 90s, capitalism was about speculation: using the wildly unjust currents of default, hyper-inflation, reckless privatisation and state corruption, a time to make your dodgy billion and perhaps leg it abroad if anyone found out. In the more stable period since 2000, only state corruption remains and the growing middle class - a fifth of the population if you are being generous, but growing rapidly, despite being vastly out-numbered by their impoverished compatriots - have made their money on an increasingly level playing field. Work and ingenuity (coupled with a little luck) equals wealth. It is an equation we in the west know well, but here it is a complete novelty and pretty damn popular. LR: Moscow, Moscow Moscow. Didn't he ever visit Smolensk?

Take Vera, a young, single mother who works in publishing. She earns about $2,000 (£1,075) a month in a company that pays its taxes religiously. She lives in a suburban flat, and drives to work every day in a flash black Audi which she has bought on credit. LR: Her salary is more than six times the national average. If she were American, we'd be talking about someone with an income of nearly $200,000 per year. Why did he mention her? Isn't at all a concern for the nation that the professors and doctors are living in poverty? Guess not.

When I asked Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin's smoothest spokesman, what his definition of democracy was, he said: "Freedom and prosperity." It is pretty clear which part of this phrase is the most popular in Russia (and, let's face it, in the politically indifferent west too, perhaps).The definition also exposes Russia's big problem with democracy - a word that really means "government by the people", something Russia has never had. People vote today, but the Kremlin still controls the media and the parties. In other words, it controls who can run and who wins. Before the Soviet experiment, there were the tsars, who just about got around to liberating the serfs before being plunged into war and revolution, and then being executed. About 2% of the population here has always run the remaining 98% like an extended slave-labour force. Cruelty has always loomed large in this vast society that spans Europe and Asia. And the European idea of 98% of the people choosing their ruling elite is at odds with Russia's still broadly Asian mindset. LR: So there's no such thing as democracy in Russia. And yet there's no reason not to love the dictator, just like Chamberlain loved Hitler, right? Umm, OK.

The 90s saw an explosion of "freedom" and an absence of regulation. In Britain, for instance, freedom of speech comes with basic restraints: you can be sued if you slander someone, or jailed if you incite murder. But in the post Soviet realm, there were no such rules, or independent judiciary. High politics remained the playground of the rich and connected. State assets were dubiously privatised; the news media brimmed with the dirtiest of political allegations; some of the state's 89 regions declared themselves to be broadly autonomous; two separatist wars erupted in Chechnya. Boris Yeltsin was a lifelong part of the communist ruling class, or nomenklatura, who extended the old elite's rule into the new, chaotic and market-led era when he became the first president of the Russian Federation in 1991. Painful, largely ineffective economic reforms and the first war with Chechnya followed before his re-election in 1996. Two years later, the rouble collapsed and Russia defaulted on its foreign debt under Yeltsin's mismanagement. As the country plunged into crisis, the doddering president began looking for someone to hand over to. The eye of the leadership cabal settled on Vladimir Putin, the relatively unknown head of the security services. First, Yeltsin appointed him prime minister, and then, when Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve in 1999, he named him as acting president. In March 2000, Putin's presidency was confirmed in national elections. To those in power around Yeltsin, Putin had seemed a grey enough former KGB agent to be harmless. Yet he became the antidote to Yeltsin, his immediate task being to impose some sort of regulation - the Russian word is poryadok, or order - on a state that was rapidly falling apart. LR: Hitler did exactly the same thing for Germany.

I do not believe that anyone could have repaired the Russia of 1999 with just a little tender loving care. Aside from the currency's collapse, Chechen separatists were mounting incursions into Russia; apartment blocks were mysteriously being blown up in the capital city; the president was perhaps more dangerous when he was sober than when he was drunk. Putin came in and, with the blunt brutality of a KGB hood, began fixing some things. Yeltsin disappeared; the Russian military won a second war in Chechnya, decisively if savagely; a raft of economic reforms were introduced to calm Russia down. At first, Putin ignored his electorate. While Russians were gripped in August 2000 by the tragedy of 118 crew trapped on the Barents sea bed beyond reach of rescue in the nuclear submarine Kursk, a holidaying president memorably and bluntly remarked: "It sank." LR: How about lots and lots of tender loving care? Would that have worked?

But he learned quickly, his appearances soon catering to public opinion, and his ministries becoming more open to the media (gone are the days when a spokesman tells you to send a fax with your questions and call back next week for comment). A flat income tax rate of 13% was introduced. For a while, things seemed better, until late 2003, when the Kremlin began a long campaign of shutting down its political opponents and tightening its control of the country's media and natural resources. LR: So he didn't learn to care about people, but he did learn how to fool them better. Yup, definitely good reason to admire the man.

The Kremlin is at times remarkably stupid. Putin is by most accounts one of the most popular leaders Russia has had and easily its most popular personality today. Yet his impressive poll figures are generated in a political climate where his opponents have been put out of business, starved of TV time and seats in parliament. Putin can never know how popular he truly is, so instead paranoia sets in, the Kremlin stifling anything that could upset his dominance of the political scene. He ends up looking a little silly, rescuing Russia from chaos and collapse but then worrying whether Russians will vote to restore the communists at the next election. LR: Note how the Russophile patronizes Russia, calling it "remarkably stupid" and yet tell us it should be loved like puppy.

An aide close to Putin once gave an excellent description of why this bizarre Soviet-esque reflex sets in. Chain-smoking, he told me: "Fifteen years ago, we lived under a different system, as if on Mars." After the collapse of communism, he said, the political elite got to grips pretty quickly with the idea that Russia needed to be a market economy, run by democracy and geared towards making people as equal as possible. "It was clear to all that's where we have to go. Then a difficult task emerges - what must be done to achieve all this? And when somebody confronts this problem in his everyday work, he finds the tools that he tries to use are mainly Soviet. Learning to use new tools - democratic ones, market ones - is not so easy. It does not happen quickly. This is the problem Putin has. The solutions are half-Soviet." LR: That's one way to put it. Neo-Soviet would be another. If America had lost the Cold War, would we expect it to simply reject values of freedom and democracy in favor of communism? If not, why should we expect Russians to do the opposite?

So what Russia has now is an infantile democracy built through Soviet tools, and the freedom to shop. It is better than nothing, but not enough. It takes only a moment for the fragility to show. I remember the queues at cash machines in the summer of 2004, with Russians desperate to put their savings back under the mattress after rumours spread that the authorities might withdraw licenses from some banks. Banks had proliferated across the country, but their spread had not been matched by confidence in the banking system. LR: But he just said that Russia has no media and no political parties or opposition. That's not infantile democracy, that's elderly dictatorship.

The conflict between appearance and reality is similarly evident in Chechnya. Parts of its capital, Grozny, are unrecognisable today compared with the greying skeleton of a city I first saw in 2002. "Life is returning to normal," says the Kremlin, and, on the central Victory Avenue, it seems so: new pavements, new streetlights, and buildings with new, whitewashed facades. Yet behind these facades the buildings remain bombed-out ruins. Still, despite the fact that the Chechen republic is run in a climate of fear by gangs of mercenaries loyal to different and warring pro-Moscow warlords, things look better if you look down Victory Avenue. The pro-Russian president was "elected" (albeit in a highly questionable vote). There are cranes up everywhere, erecting new (government) buildings. There is cellphone coverage. LR: Is this wacko saying that the Potemkinization of Chechnya is a good thing? Somebody really should stop him before he embarrasses himself further.

Many fear that the facade and the work-in-progress is all they will ever get. As one Grozny resident and long-term observer of the conflict told me: "The problem is that people will begin to think that this really is normality and democracy and freedom." A similar problem pervades the rest of Putin's Russia. He has a parliament, the Duma, where two-thirds of MPs are loyal (the president has no formal party links, but has full support from the United Russia party, with its absolute majority). He has a human rights watchdog, each of whose members he appointed. He holds elections, yet regards them like a military operation to defeat the enemy, rather than a test of popular will. The institutions are there, but so far only the external wall has been created. A lot of quick work is needed to prevent the facade's collapse. The next 18 months will decide whether the Putin administration was the beginning of a real democracy, or a Potemkin village like central Grozny. The Kremlin head faces a real dilemma. The majority of Russians tell pollsters that they want him to stay on. But to do so, he would have to change the constitution. He has repeatedly said he will not do so and his two possible successors, Sergei Ivanov and the first deputy prime minister Dmitri Medevedev, are able enough. LR: So, what he's saying is, he's willing to gamble that in the next 18 months "President" Putin will suddenly be born again, rather than consolidating his power to the point that oppositon will be next to impossible. And if he's wrong? "Whoops, sorry Russians. My bad." Yikes!

If he left voluntarily at the height of his powers, he would be the first Russian leader to do so, perhaps securing the epitaph of being the most enlightened leader in the country's recent history. He faces little competition for that title. Only death robbed the tsars, Lenin, Stalin and the other communists of their thrones. Mikhail Gorbachev was forced out by Yeltsin, who was in turn forced out by his ailing health. After Putin's recent performance at the G8 summit, where he hosted world leaders in his home town of St Petersburg while sarcastically goading George Bush over Iraq and Tony Blair over cash-for-peerages, his poll rating has soared to a 79% high. It will take a real patriot to step down now. LR: Notice how he doesn't say he's putting any money on this bet?

But this brings me to the real reason why I am a Putin fan: he has put Russia on a course that means it will soon no longer be his choice whether he, or perhaps his successor, stays in power. Commerce, not politics, will bring Russia round. Russians have fallen irreversibly in love with denghi - their ugly word for money - and the mobility and riches of the globalised world. Thanks to Putin, a strong enough state now exists to gradually compel them to pay taxes. The Kremlin, despite its Soviet-era idiocies, still cares hugely whether it is popular, and hence often uses these monies to the electorate's benefit. With increasing taxation comes an increasing demand for representation, and eventually the government will fear the people, rather than the other way around. LR: But the vast majority of Russians are dirt poor. The Kremlin isn't using funds for the people, it's hoarding them in a slush fund. There are no opposition parties and there is no televised media. Most people havn't got a clue what is really going on. What he's saying is that Russia will become a corporate state, Zaire with permafrost, with a thin crust of high-living elite grinding down the vast majority, just like under the tsars, just like under the Soviets.

Driving home in a taxi last week, we hit a bump in the road, causing the driver to apologise for the bad roads. I joked that the government was to blame and so, by extension, were the electorate for voting them in. The driver, munching sunflower seeds, said he hadn't voted for 30 years. Yet all the same, roads are constantly being built and rebuilt in Moscow. If positive things are happening to the economy and infrastructure without a real democracy being in place, imagine what the government will do when it actually has to compete with genuine opponents to please the voters if it wants to retain power. LR: Moscow, Moscow, Moscow. Doesn't this guy ever visit Smolensk?

My four years here have seen an ugly surge of authoritarianism in Russia but also vast economic freedoms; a rise in Islamic extremism and a dozen major terrorist atrocities but also the death of their mastermind, Shamil Basayev; the broad repression of dissent, but also a hardened popular understanding in some corners of how a proper, civilised society should be; a winter then a summer that were minus and then plus 32C. And so it follows, on the pendulum of extremes that is society here, that while the country's direction can be intensely sad and worrying, it should, just moments later, be intensely hopeful. LR: "In some corners." Notice how he doesn't tell us where they are? Doesn't name a single specific person who is sitting in on of those corners. What happens when that pendulum swings into the gulag archipelago?

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