I’m writing this from an Internet café in Seattle, so I’ll be brief.
(1) Congratulations to SWSPires – the winner of the promised $25 Amazon gift certificate for participating in The Russia Debate during its first month! Incidentally, he was only the sixth member to be drawn by lot from the members pool; it’s just that the others had no posts (as of yet) to their names. And to be in the running, you needed to have made at least one post, in addition to registering.
(2) If you are a Russia expert (or just curious), please feel free to join the 2013 World Russia Forum in Washington DC this June 11th. It will be located at The Russian Cultural Center:
1825 Phelps Place Northwest
Washington, DC 20008
The theme for this year will be “the role of NGOs, Public Diplomacy, and Media in formulating the agenda for US – Russia political, educational and cultural cooperation.” That is, soft power, which we’ve discussed here of late. The Russian Spectrum ties in with this well and will be the main focus of my representation.
(3) Speaking of The Russian Spectrum – I’m on a “working holiday” of sorts, so I will not be doing any translations until I return on June 25.
I’m now quite happy with the site as it exists and functions, and I’m sure its “base” is now firm enough to support significant scaling up. That is not, however, within the capabilities of one person. It needs at least one more editor and regular contributors for it to start offering something resembling comprehensive coverage, from all slivers of the spectrum. And for that it needs financing.
That is going to be my priority orientation for the next weeks and months.
I will be going on a “working vacation” this Sunday, so I’m publishing my weekly contribution to VoR/US-Russia experts panel early:
Okay, let’s get one thing clear from the get go: The Russian law requiring NGOs to declare themselves “foreign agents” if they engage in political activities and receive financing from abroad, is not illegitimate. At least, not unless you also consider the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – which does practically the same thing – to be also illegitimate.
Which is just fine, mind you! But only as a universal value judgment, and not as a tool to selectively beat Russia over the head with.
Or you can shrug it off as paranoia. But bear in mind that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to topple you. The color revolutions were in significant part funded from abroad, and there has recently appeared witness testimony (backed up by video footage) of Udaltsov, one of the most prominent leaders of the street opposition, receiving money from a Georgian politician. So there is a case to be made that a certain amount of paranoia is necessary to preserve Russia’s sovereign democracy.
As such, a foreign agents law is not a bad idea per se, at least assuming it is applied rigorously but fairly. That may be too much to expect of Russians, though.
Problem is that said paranoia, while healthy in modest doses, may end up impinging on the “democracy” part of sovereign democracy. While labeling a crane reserve as a foreign agent might be more farce than substance (if so then what would that make the “alpha crane,” that is, Putin? – as the Runet jibes go), the same cannot be said of the pressure applied to the Levada Center.
Foreign financing only accounts for 1.5-3% of its total, according to its director, Lev Gudkov. Furthermore, he argues, the political and sociological research that Levada does is not politics, period. Certainly that would appear to be the case in the US, where it is virtually impossible to imagine the Department of Justice going after PEW, Gallup, or Rasmussen if they happened to take a few contacts for foreigners.
So while the laws might be similar on paper, the Investigative Committee is taking a much, much wider interpretation of what falls under the rubric of politics. And I would say that this is not only unjust but ultimately, stupid.
Levada does not fudge its results. They typically fall in line exactly with those of FOM and VCIOM, the two state-owned pollsters – including on the most politically significant indicator, Putin’s approval rating, which was an entirely respectable 64% as of this May. And while Levada does have an undeniably anti-Putin editorial slant, this is arguably all the better – from the Kremlin’s perspective – since it makes it seem to be “independent” and hence reliable in the West. FOM and VCIOM, as state-owned entities, would never be able to muster the same degree of credibility no matter the integrity with which they conduct their surveys.
From the meaningless police confiscations of Nemtsov’s “white papers” (which are only ever read on the Internet) to the harassment that frightened the economist Sergey Guriev into exile in Paris, petty authoritarianism on the part of lower level police and investigators is one of the most reliable manufactories of the ammunition that the “anti-Russian lobby” in the West uses to take potshots at Putin.
Apparently he fled to France after senior “systemic liberal” sources in the government told him he was not safe staying in Russia. So he played it safe.
The only problem, at least with the latter explanation? Sergey Guriev himself denies it is so, according to Ben Aris at the FT:
The whole episode is embarrassing for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been calling for improvements to Russia’s investment climate. According to Guriev, Putin has reassured him that he will come to no harm, but clearly Guriev was not confident that even Putin could protect him. …
While Guriev has been outspoken on economic issues and warned that the current policies will lead to economic stagnation, he is usually a lot more circumspect when it comes to politics. He was again on Friday when asked who was to blame for the attack.
“I have no complaints about either Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev. I heard them say that nothing is threatening me and that they will not interfere in the work of the investigative committee. I respect such an approach and believe that it is wrong to ask the president of the country to interfere on each occasion,” Guriyev told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
So unless you believe Ben Aris to be making this up, or consider that Guriev is trying to inveigle himself back into favor (“No hard feelings! It was all just a misunderstanding”), his words have to be taken at face value.
That leaves us with over-enthusiastic investigators who went way beyond the remit of legal acceptability – at least if Guriev’s version of his interactions with them (e.g. the demand to hand over the last 5 years of his emails, etc.) are likewise correct. Investigators whom Bastrykin or Putin are, for whatever reason, either won’t, can’t, or just haven’t yet reined back in.
PS. The Presidential Committee on Human Rights under Medvedev became something more accurately described as the Presidential Committee on Khodorkovsky’s Rights. Why and how an official tax-payer funded grouping devolved to lobbying the interests of a single private individual is, in my view, an entirely valid matter for investigation. AFAIK, however, Guriev himself was only tangentially related to it however, doing little more than giving his “expert opinion” on the issue for their consideration.
I think we have to make a distinction here between “soft” soft power and “hard” soft power.
The US’ “soft” soft power is, of course, overwhelming. By “soft” soft power, I mean its accumulated cultural capital: The popularity of the English language, Hollywood, the Ivy League, Apple and American Pie, and so forth. If this were a Civilization game, the Americans would be maxing out the “culture” meter. There is no feasible way for Russia to ever overtake the US in this respect, if only because its limited population constrains the ultimate scope of its civilization (China is another matter).
What is of greater interest, and CAN be influenced relatively cheaply, is “hard” soft power. By “hard” soft power, I mean the ability to harness support for a sovereign internal and foreign policy line. “Hard” soft power is promoted by media and cultural organizations catering to foreign audiences, and can be measured by indicators such as a country’s international approval rating, which the BBC World Service measures every year. This rating can, in turn, affect diplomatic influence, investment attractiveness, and promulgate a general sense of moral vindication among the citizenry.
Lavishing resources into raising international approval ratings – that is, building up “hard” soft power – can produce vast returns on investment. There are several ways this can be done:
(1) Avoiding embarrassing situations so far as possible, and responding to them in a timely and comprehensive way AS SOON AS they arise. The entire Magnitsky debacle is a case study in how NOT to manage a genuine screw-up followed up by an oligarchic PR attack. Khodorkovsky is an earlier example. The ECHR eventually concluded that the case was NOT politically motivated, but so far as everyone and their dog is concerned the Menatep bandits are martyrs for democracy. The scope of the PR failure here is astounding. But the Russian government just doesn’t seem to care, leaving the heavy lifting to bloggers (!) like PoliTrash.
(2) Countering negative “hard” soft power. As one of the few countries to pursue a truly sovereign foreign policy – China is another example; so is Venezuela and Iran – it is not surprising that Russia would come under intensive information attack. One need do little more than recall Western coverage of the 2008 South Ossetian War, in which the victim was literally presented as the aggressor. Even institutions like the EU were later forced to acknowledge the truth, but no matter – the first week of coverage permanently implanted the perception it was big bad Russia that attacked plucky democratic Georgia, and neocons continue to push the lie even though a 5 minute perusal of Wikipedia would totally discredit it.
Information attacks are an inescapable price of sovereignty. However, the effects of such attacks can be minimized by establishing a special office that could coordinate the writing of press complaints to combat factually wrong and/or defamatory coverage; working with non-Western countries to reduce Western dominance in various international financial and regulatory bodies; promoting the integration of the Russian media space into the global media space, first and foremost via the Internet; creating and popularizing alternate, more objective indices of freedom and corruption than the politicized Transparency International and Freedom House ratings.
(3) Building up the keystone institutions of “hard” soft power. Every self-respecting country needs a channel or two to promote its views abroad (The BBC, France 24, RFERL/Voice of America, CNBC, Al Jazeera) and Russia, through RT, RIA, the Voice of Russia, and RBTH, performs solidly in this respect. But other aspects need touching up. For instance, the main vector of Russian cultural influence abroad is Rossotrudnichestvo, which no foreigner can even pronounce properly; compare and contrast with the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, or the Confucius Academies. It definitely has to step up its game here: Rebrand (Pushkin Schools?), and expand.
“Hard” soft power is fairly easy to increase with targeted investments (unlike “soft” soft power), and it is comparatively very cheap (unlike “hard” military-industrial power). There are no Great Power wars on the horizon, which makes the vast spending on military modernization rather questionable; while the task of building up “soft” soft power isn’t a matter of years, but of decades or even centuries. In contrast, “hard” soft power can be maximized relatively cheaply and quickly. Although Russia is much better in this respect than it was even a decade ago, there are still many low-hanging fruits left to picked.
I think the real situation is somewhere in between the Kremlin’s position and Mark Adomanis’ and the rest of the Western and Russian liberal media’s alarmism. So as far as this is concerned, I really do think Gudkov is exaggerating, not to even speak of the inevitable and hysterical comparisons to Stalinism cropping up in some quarters.
So what if Levada registers as a foreign agent? The fact will remained buried in the paperwork. Clients won’t care, so long as the sociological work is good.
Or it can simply refuse foreign financing, which according to Gudkov himself accounts for 1.5%-3% of its total.
The only danger to Levada is if it openly defies the law, and commits seppuku out of spite, so to speak. Which is not impossible, if very unlikely.
This does not however mean that the application of the foreign agents law to it is justified. As Gudkov himself argues, political research is not politics, period. While I do think comparisons of Russia’s law to FARA are valid, on paper, the application of them is not. Can you imagine US prosecutors going after the likes of Gallup or PEW if they do some contracts for foreigners?
The reason the witchhunt is stupid (in addition to being wrong) is that Levada actually supports the Kremlin’s record. 70% approval ratings for Putin coming from a state-backed pollster like FOM or VCIOM is one thing – the same numbers from a private pollster that gets money from Soros or the NED is a whole other level of credibility, at least so far as Western audiences are concerned.
If Bastrykin was wise and aware, he would waste no time reigning in the enthusiastic lower-level prosecutors going after Levada and other non-political NGOs. I am not sure he is either though.
But it is finally here. The Russian Spectrum – translating everything worth translating from the Russian media.
I’ll keep it brief.
(1) We need translators! If you can proficiently translate from Russian into English, I will be very happy to have you on board.
First, the bad news:
- You’re not getting paid, as I’m currently running the site out of my own pockets and spare time.
Ouch! That’s pretty bad. What’s the good news, then?
- Each post has the translator’s name attached to it, allowing you to quickly build up an online portfolio of your work (e.g. here’s mine).
- Hundreds of daily readers from the get go! Vast publicity! Or at least more publicity than they’d get if you post your translations in various discussion threads with hundreds of comments. (you know who you are…)))
- As I’m not paying the piper, you get to call the tune: Translate what you like, when you like, however often you want to.
- Let the world know about the diversity of the Russian media, and points of view that are ignored in the Western media.
- Get paid after all! Well, as soon as I get funding, which I honestly think is more likely than not. Loyal, reliable, and competent volunteers will get first dibs on any paid positions.
If you are interested, please contact me and I will make you a Contributor account at The Russian Spectrum. You’ll be ready to go in no time.
(2) Explore the site! There are already 36 translations of the site. Some of them you will be familiar with from here, but almost half are unique to The Russian Spectrum. Furthermore, my aim is to add at least two translations a day, with output set to expand if volunteers join in.
(3) While I don’t like to beg, and usually don’t – at least not on my regular blogs – I will make an exception for The Russian Spectrum. To ensure the reliability and security needed to foster its smooth growth and development, I decided to go with the best hosts and software for a small media organization. Total projected costs for a year at its present scale are on the order of $400.
Another day, another Internet project.
Or more specifically, reviving an old project – the “English Inosmi” concept of translating articles and blog posts from the Russian media for a Western audience. The only problem was that I was perpetually dissatisfied, even if at a subconscious level, with the name: RossPress*. An elementary problem which I had somehow overlooked was that the double “s” is simply incorrect. And “RosPress.com” is already taken.
But apart from that, I was focusing my efforts not so much on translation, as on getting funding. Which isn’t all that easy for some random guy with a blog. It’s much easier if you also have a random NGO, but setting up said NGO is quite a lengthy procedure. So while that’s in process I thought I might as well restart work on the site and even offer a few translations. At the least, it would tie in well with The Russia Debate**.
But I still need a good name for it.
The RussoSphere: Solid, distinctive name – less than 2,000 Google hits on it, amazingly. Logo can be of a “sphere” with images of Russian newspaper front pages wrapped around it.
The Russian Spectrum: Another solid name that sounds respectable as a newspaper name, while at the same time alluding to its mission – translations from a wide variety of ideological viewpoints***.
Right now I’m slightly leaning towards The RussoSphere.
* Sorry Craig.
** You don’t know what is The Russia Debate? It’s a forum for discussing Russian politics and history. Come, comment, conquer!
I submit that the Russia watching community has no shortage of opinionated blogs, mercenary “information projects,” and warring factions of ”CIA jackals” and “Kremlin bots.” What it greatly lacks, however, is a neutral, well-moderated meeting ground where a diversity of voices could engage in free and vigorous debates about all aspects of Russian politics, economics, and history.
In other words, it needs a forum, and as nobody else seems willing, I am happy to step step up to the plate with The Russia Debate.
Getting a forum going isn’t the easiest thing in the world, so just in case the excitement of political debate and settling in virgin online territory isn’t enough for you, anybody who makes at least one post at The Russian Debate throughout the rest of this month will be placed in a random drawing for the following prizes:
- A $25 Amazon gift certificate.
- Five separate vouchers for a free copy – in print or digital – of my upcoming book THE DARK LORD OF THE KREMLIN (scheduled for publication this October).
So, go ahead, check it out, create an account, and start populating the boards with your arguments and ideas. There are already ongoing active discussions about the Israeli strike on Syria and the May 6th rally. Looking forwards to seeing you there!
But first, a note about those two articles published here this morning: As I hope many (if not all) of you guessed, it was a scheduling accident. In particular, as regards the piece “Russia’s Economy Is Now Europe’s Largest,” this is what I expected to see once the World Bank released its PPP-adjusted GNI figures for 2012 (it always does this in April, but for whatever reason it has been late this year). Russia is already very close to Germany as of 2011, and due to a planned harmonization of its GDP counting methodology with international standards – i.e. the introduction of imputed rent - it is projected to automatically increase by 5% in addition to its normal growth. Hence the title: It’s something that’s likely to happen, hence I wrote that title with “see data” for text and scheduled it for publication on April 30th, on the assumption that the World Bank will have released its new data by then and I’d have time to write the actual post. But the World Bank dallied and I forgot about the scheduled publication date.
Now, onto the demography. In contrast to the first 3 months of 2012, when both mortality and birth rates saw big improvements, they have now gone into reverse for the same period in 2013. Namely, births have decreased by 0.8%, deaths have also risen by 0.8%, and the rate of natural decrease widened from 35,000 in 2012 to 43,000 in 2013. Mark Adomanis notes that this is a “pretty worrying development,” with “2013 is shaping up to be the year in which Russia’s streak of improving demography comes to an end.”
That is true enough if current trends continue. The operative word being “if.” But as I cautioned in my last post, extrapolating from a month or even a few months is a risky proposition, given the sharp seasonal swings in mortality. This is particularly true for extrapolations from winter months, in which there is an additional strong independent factor in the form of the influenza/pneumonia situation (which, on average, is worse during colder winters) and climatic factors (e.g. all else equal, Russians tend to drink more during colder winters). Now we know that this year’s has been exceptionally severe in Russia, so let’s look at the detailed breakdown for causes of mortality: -3% for infectious diseases, -1% for cancers and heart/CVD diseases, +18% for pulmonary diseases (e.g. pneumonia), no change in digestive tract diseases, -5% for deaths from external causes (but a +1% rise in alcohol poisonings), and +14% in deaths from sundry causes.
Now on the surface this now looks quite a lot better. Despite a harsh winter, deaths from heart disease (the biggest killer in Russia) continued to decline, as did deaths from external causes (which disproportionately affect the young and thus have an especially negative impact on life expectancy). The additional 3,000 increase in deaths from pulmonary diseases will have mostly accrued to elderly deaths from pneumonia, most likely due to the season swings typical of its epidemiology. The major, overriding question is this: What are “deaths from sundry causes” (прочие причины смерти)? I don’t know. But we can speculate. In old age, it is frequently unclear which of a panoply of ailments finally do someone in. And harsh winters are associated with mortality rises, especially among the elderly. Perhaps a large part of that 7,000 rise in deaths from “sundry causes” were simply a result of more elderly dying due to general winter causes and not being precisely classified.
In any case, I submit that three months is too short a time period to make any meaningful conclusions as to the final trajectory for the year. Again, I refer to Sergey Zhuravlev’s graph as a graphic demonstration of why that is so. Russia’s improvements in mortality are not a steady process, to the contrary they look like a series of intermittent sharp declines followed by steady periods of up to a year’s duration.
Then there is the decline in birth rates. To be fair, it is increasingly unrealistic to expect further rises in crude birth rates, because the “echo effect” is real (if often overstated, because of a failure to adjust for birth postponement/rising age of mother at childbirth). Russia’s total fertility rate started plummeting around 1991; the girls born then are now in their early 20′s. The average age of the mother at childbirth is now about 27 and rising, and up by 2 years since the 1990′s. Nonetheless, despite that counteracting effect, the fact is that the demographic “chasm” of the 1990′s continues to gain on women at their peak fertility (even if the age of peak fertility continues to increase) and it is a deep chasm, with women of the age of 5-19 making up just 61% of women of the age of 20-34 in 2012. So as there will be accumulating downwards pressure from changes in the age structure until the late 2020′s/early 2030′s we can now expect crude birth rates to start consistently falling from year to year.