The next installment of our Watching the Russia Watchers series at S/O features an interview with Peter Lavelle, the main political analyst at the Russia Today TV network, host of its CrossTalk debate show and Untimely Thoughts blogger. (He also has a Wikipedia page!) Peter is opposed to Western media hegemony, considering it neither fair nor useful, and firmly believes that global media should feature a diversity of voices from all cultural traditions; as such, the rise of alternate forums such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today are a boon for media consumers everywhere. Peter Lavelle actualizes this philosophy in his own CrossTalk program, in which controversial topics from France’s burqa ban to the collapse of Soviet Amerika are discussed: agree with him or not, one can certainly never get bored listening. The serious Russia watcher is recommended to join his “Untimely Thoughts” – Expert Discussion Group on Russia.
Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…
What first sparked your interest in journalism and Russia, and how did the twain meet?
The reason I started to write about Russia – circa 1999 – came about for two reasons. First, having an education in Eastern European and Russian history gave me a reason to write about where I lived. I didn’t like much of what the commentariat was writing on contemporary Russia. The second reason was to earn some money, which later led to needing to make a living.
I came to Russia to live in late 1997. I was employed as an equity analyst at what was then called Alfa Capital. I was lured to Russia by my former boss (an American) I worked with in Poland. I never wanted to move to Russia – actually I must say I was rather adverse to Russia, having lived in eastern Europe for about 12 years. As a result of the financial crisis of 1998, I was given a generous severance package. This allowed me to stay in Russia for a while without worrying too much about money. In spring of 2000 I started to work for a small Russian bank. The money wasn’t great, but at least the bank organized and paid for my visa. Plus, I had time to write now and then. It was at this time I discovered the JRL – Johnson’s Russia List. I have been hooked on (even an addict to) Russia watching ever since.
One of the staples of the neocon-Russophobe narrative is that Russia is alone in the world, utterly bereft of friends, left only with the likes of Nicaragua and Nauru to indulge it in its anachronistic “imperial fantasies”. Not really. Conflating the West with the world won’t change the fact that amongst the peoples of China, India, and most of the Middle East and Latin America – that is, the regions containing the bulk of the world’s population and future economic potential - Russia is actually viewed rather favorably. But what about peoples recently liberated from the oppressive, iron boots of Russian chauvinism – surely they dislike Russia? Not that simple. Some sure do – Estonians, Poles, West Ukrainians, Georgians… But plenty more don’t (Armenians, Bulgarians, East Ukrainians). It’s a complex picture of significant political and geopolitical import.
Back in November 2008, the VTsIOM polling site released some very detailed results about what peoples in the former Soviet Union think about each other. The first graph below asks people which countries they consider to be friends or allies of their country.
It is now nearly 20 years since market reformers began liberalizing the economies of Eastern Europe, or as some smart-ass put it, trying to revive the fish in the centrally planned fish stews. These stews, cooked to diverse recipes from goulash socialism to Soviet “structural militarization“, were subjected to a wide spectrum of overlapping treatments ranging neoliberalism (the Baltics), market socialism (Belarus), and mercantile corporatism (Russia). Other fish stews just stagnated in anarchic stasis (Ukraine). Twenty years on, it is time to observe the oft-surprising results.
I used Angus Maddison’s historical statistics, CIA figures for 2009 growth except where available the results from national statistical services (Belarus & Russia), and the IMF projections for 2010 (adjusted upwards for non-Baltic nations with sharp recent falls in GDP to account for their stronger-than-expected recoveries) to create GDP (PPP) per capita indices for post-Soviet nations and Poland (generally representative of Visegrad) where the output levels of 1989 – the year of peak Soviet GDP – are set to 100.
So which national ponds look like they’ve been subjected to grenade fishing, and which ones have the liveliest fish? Drumroll…
I have long noted Russia’s resurgence back into the ranks of the leading Great Powers; I predicted that the global economic crisis will not have a long-term retarding impact on the Russian economy; and within the past year I have bought into Stratfor‘s idea that the defining narrative now in play in Eurasia is Russia’s intention to reconstruct its empire / sphere of influence / call-it-what-you-will in the post-Soviet space. This “resurgence” is advancing along several major fronts: geopolitical, economic, demographic, military, and ideological. In this post I will cover recent major news on the first four.
Ukraine Returns to the Empire?
The most consequential big event is the electoral victory of Viktor Yanukovych (35%) in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko (25%), Serhiy Tihipko (13%), Arseniy Yatsenyuk (7%), and Viktor Yushchenko (5%) – a result that I called 100% accurately. Disillusioned with the incompetence, economic decline, and “anarchic stasis” of five years of Orange rule, polls indicate three times as many Ukrainians now favor a “strong leader” over a “democratic government”, so no wonder that the liberal ideologue Yushenko, though the only major Ukrainian politician who is consistent and sincere in his views, suffered a crushing defeat as the last true representative of the Westernizing “Orange” movement. This marks a threshold in the accelerating “regathering of the Russian lands”*.
Below is an electoral map of the first-round Ukrainian presidential elections. As is always the case, the urban, Russophone / Surzhyk-speaking, Russian Orthodox Church-affiliated south and east voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych, head of the Party of Regions, while the more bucolic, Ukrainian-speaking, Kyiv Patriarchate-affiliated / Uniate center and west favored Tymoshenko.
This is a summary of opinion polls conducted by the Levada-Center, Russia’s Gallup, since February 2009, and continues on from the first post. Along with the original post Lovely Levada, this series constitutes a unique English-language reference for social trends under late Putinism as expressed by the Russian people themselves, rather than the limousine liberals, pro-Western ideologues, and Kremlin flunkies who claim to speak for them. Unless stated otherwise, all opinion poll data refers to 2009.
2009, Dec 28: Around 60% of Russians are against the building of a sleek 400-meter skyscraper, the Okhta Center, in central St.-Petersburg, while only 21% are for. Myself, I’m of two minds about it. Though I like skyscrapers, I don’t want to see any public money going to Gazprom ego-building.
A decision was taken at the start of the year at a meeting of the council of the Mujahideen of the Emirate of the Caucasus, led by Caucasus Emir Doku Abu Usman, to activate an economic war against Russia on its territory. To carry out these tasks, subversive groups were created and sent to a host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage power lines, and sabotage at factories.
In the name of Allah, through our efforts on Aug. 17 an act of sabotage, long in the making and thoroughly thought out, was carried out at the Khakasia region’s Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power plant, the largest in Russia. An anti-tank mine on a timer was planted in the turbine room, and its explosion caused enormous damage, greater than we anticipated. The result halted the hydro-power station completely, and caused losses to Russia worth many billions of dollars.
[...talks about their recent militant attacks in Ingushetia & threatens those who cooperate with the "apostates" with death]
Lay down your arms and return to your homes, work and earn money in the ways permitted under Sharia, and you will once again have a calm life.
Whispers of war are heard in the Caucasus, as the anniversary of last year’s South Ossetian War approaches. Will the guns of August be fired in anger to mark the occasion?
Here are some things we need to keep in mind when analyzing this:
It was Georgia that attacked South Ossetia last year, mere hours after Saakashvili promised them peace and eternal friendship and candy. The Georgians proceeded to indiscriminately bombard Tskhinvali, a densely populated town full of civilians, with Grad missiles. They also attacked UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, which constitutes a clear casus belli. Russia’s response was just and proportionate.
In reality there is much evidence, including the testimonies of former Georgian cabinet members, to the effect that Saakashvili was planning to retake the “lost territories” months beforehand.
Since then the media retracted their most sensationalist claims in a bid to reinforce their (questionable) reputations for objectivity. Many media outlets now acknowledge the reality of Georgian aggression and war crimes. Amongst those who looked at the issue in detail, only the most diehard neocons and Russophobes still deny that it was Georgia that was primarily responsible for the war. In their circles, the idea of Russian war guilt is almost an article of faith. Applying Occam’s Razor would suggest they are wrong.
Nonetheless, the US continues to unconditionally support Saakashvili, even under the Obama administration (whether this is because of American geopolitical interests, or because they really are hoodwinked by Georgian PR, is an exercise I leave to the reader). In doing so they turn a blind eye to Saakashvili’s repression of the opposition. This only serves to further reinforce the Russian conviction that the West cares about democracy only in so far as it advances its geopolitical interests. Far from pressuring the Russians to cease and desist, the West’s hostile rhetoric, encroachment on Russia’s security space and dismissal of Russian protestations will only reinforce Russia’s disillusionment with the West and make it ever more unwilling to consider Western interests.
This disillusionment is especially prevalent amongst the Russian elites and younger people with Internet access. Thanks to the West, they are coming to the conclusion that no matter what their country does – right or wrong – it will be condemned by the champions of Western chauvinism regardless. The only way to make them the West happy would be to lie down and lick its boots, but few peoples anywhere think this way, let alone in a nation as proud as Russia. Though Georgia struck first, this war marked the most significant Russian retaliation to years of humiliations yet; it sent a message that it would no longer passively resign itself to Western imperialism.
All this may lead to a growing preference for Realpolitik over “liberal internationalist” solutions to Russia’s geopolitical problems, which will go in tandem with an internal power shift towards the hardliners. They are interested in more than just responding to external aggression against the Russian Federation; they want to redefine Russia itself.
As I pointed out in my previous post Reconsidering Parshev, the weight of history is forcing Russia back to its future, the desires of its leadership regardless (let alone the desires of Westerners). This past-and-future is a Eurasian empire based on economic autarky, political sovereignty and spiritual sobornost. Amongst many other things, this implies control over the Caucasus.
Georgia is the linchpin of the Caucasus. Securing a Russian-friendly government there will reinforce Russian control of gas flows from Central Asia to Europe, extend its influence over the Black Sea region and allow it to link up with its ally Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base. Nabucco will turn into a pipedream, at least as long as relations between Iran and the West remain strained.
As Stratfor points out in Georgia: Left to Russia’s Mercy?, Georgia is not a strong nation. It is riven by divisions that could be exploited, e.g. separatist-minded Adjara and Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti. Its economy is dependent on agriculture and the government budget relies on pipeline rents. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s brand of market fundamentalism may have provided a temporary boost from efficiency gains, but the attendant deindustrialization now limits its longer-term prospects.
“Soft” measures failed to topple Saakashvili in the past year. He retains the approval of perhaps half the population, crushed an attempted military coup (or set it up himself) and now appears to be more secure in his position than he was in months.
Another important point is that many elements of the Russian military were disappointed at being ordered to stop before overthrowing Saakashvili. They would love to finish the job (and furnish the excuse).
That said, Saakashvili is hardly a peacenik either. According to Kirill Troitsky’s “War taught them nothing” in Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier, the Georgians have been rapidly rearming since 2008. Regaining control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains a strategic goal of the Georgian regime.
Russia is upgrading and expanding its forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is renovating Soviet-era air and naval bases in Abkhazia, deploying its own border guards to the region (which increases the chances of an incident), kicking out foreign observers, and equipping the 131st Motor Rifle Brigade in Abkhazia with the latest T-90 tanks. Below is a photo of a Russian soldier in Abkhazia posing in front of his new kit, first posted to the social networking site Odnoklassniki (the Russian Facebook).
The focus on Abkhazia suggests that any Russian offensive would be focused on the west of the country, bypassing urban quagmires in Tbilisi. This would cut Georgia’s links to the Black Sea and sever the gas pipelines running across its territory. The Armenians may be persuaded to join in the dismembering of Georgia through the “liberation” of their compatriots in Samtskhe-Javakheti, through which Georgia would be cut clean in half. Azerbaijan would be cornered into quiescence. The main uncertainty is how Turkey would respond to such developments; it is not as pro-NATO and pro-West as it was a decade ago.
That said, Felgenhauer is not a reliable military analyst. He predicted the Georgians would humiliate the Russian Army in a war.
In conclusion, though innocent of starting last year’s Ossetia War, Russia made significant geopolitical gains and its elites became more disillusioned with the West. Control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia now make an invasion much easier to carry out than in 2009. The troops in the region conducted military exercises in July, they are being equipped with modern armaments and Russia’s naval forces in the region are recently very active. The main question is, are these forces meant to deter Georgia from another military attempt to reintegrate its “lost territories”, or are they to be the spearheads of a pre-meditated Russian aggression?
I think somewhere in between, as is usually the case. Russia still respects its foreign relations enough, if not with the West then with the rest, to pay lip service to international law; however, it won’t hesitate to exploit any serious Georgian provocation. I don’t think Saakashvili is a complete idiot, so barring independent lower-rank Georgian military adventurism (or very skilled Russian feigning of said adventurism), the chances of war breaking out this August must be rather small. Perhaps 10-20%. We’ll see. In any case this August is going to be a tense and potentially very fun time in the Caucasus. And that’s not going to change any time soon, because based on current trends the reassertion of Russian power over the Caucasus is almost inevitable this decade.
His big idea, an elaboration and tying together of earlier work, is that Russia’s economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, and that integrating with the global economy will lead to catastrophe. This is because of his counter-intuitive observation that Russia is overpopulated. Though its population density is low on paper, the cold climate, huge landmass and poor riverine connections means that the carrying capacity of north Eurasia is nowhere near as high as that of the world’s other centers of economic and political power – the US, China, and Europe. Because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically “efficient” to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Pearl River Delta or the Great Lakes. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds; the other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the era of neo-liberal reforms). He recommended a return to sovereignty, autarky and sobornost as the solution to these woes.
I agreed with Parshev’s analysis upon my first reading of his book in 2002, a time when I still thought Putin was no more than a better-dressed, sober gangster in Yeltsin’s mold and the country showed little signs of real recovery. Yet as evidence mounted that Russia really was prospering by the mid-2000′s and I became influenced by Krugman’s criticisms of competitiveness, I increasingly came to reject his ideas (e.g. see this comment). However, since then increasing awareness of the vital role played by protectionism in “catch-up” industrial development, the reality of peak oil and above all the economic crisis forced me into reconsidering Parshev.
This is a list of common Russophobe myths about Russia and its people, and the successor to a March 2008 poston a similar theme. Please be sure to check the supporting notes at the bottom before dismissing this as neo-Soviet propaganda. Also partially available en français & на русском thanks to Alexandre Latsa’s translation.
MYTH: Life has only improved for a few oligarchs, while the poor and everyone outside Moscow remain impoverished.
REALITY: During Putin’s Presidency, poverty rates more than halved and wages nearly tripled, fueling an on-going consumption boom shared across all regions and social groups.
MYTH: Russia is in a demographic death spiral that has gotten worse under Putin and which will soon sink its economy.
REALITY: The birth rate has increased, the death rate has fallen and mortality from murder, suicide and alcohol poisoning has plummeted. Projections of Russia’s future dependency ratios are no worse than for China or the G7.
MYTH: Putin abused human rights, personally murdered 200 journalists and returned Russia to its totalitarian past.
REALITY: Too bad that only 3% of Russians agree, despite having easy access to such views via the press, cable TV and the Internet. The number of journalists killed under Putin (17) is less than under Yeltsin (30), and only five of them can be definitively linked to their professional work. Elections have been mostly free and fair.
Since the last time I covered Levada‘s opinion polls was a whopping half a year back, I reckon its time to make an update on what Russians are thinking since then. A comprehensive kind of post, like what I did in Lovely Levada (check it out, if you haven’t already!) and hopefully a good resource for Russia-watchers of all stripes. Russophobes will find some good material here too . I’ll start from the most recent and presumably relevant ones, and work my way down to where we left off last July, trying to select polls that are non-repetitive and interesting. Please note that there is a Part II since the original post was too long to post.
2009, Feb 13: Two opinion polls on wellbeing and consumer expectations. The Crisis and Social Feelings has lots of different graphs of consumer confidence plummeting down towards the end of 2008, as everywhere else in the world. People are postponing consumption; preferences are shifting from the Euro to the $, but the ruble remains surprisingly strong; and worryingly, 41% think the economy will not start recovering for more than a year compared to 27% who think otherwise (my own bet is half a year to a year, as I wrote in previous posts).
The second poll is the Crisis and problems in consumer credit. It has an interesting chart of how people’s feelings about buying expensive things on loans changed from 2001 to 2009. Not surprisingly they collapsed recently, which is one of the main reasons that car sales, of instance, have fallen off a cliff. What I find more interesting is that the height of debt mania was during the mid-2000′s. Meanwhile, attitudes worsened during the past two years, when the worst excesses of Russian corporate binging on cheap foreign credit took place.