This just came from the Associated Press via CNN. Today, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said of Russia:
“In any country, if you don’t have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development,” Rice told reporters after meeting with human-rights activists.
“I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. I have told the Russians that. Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the Duma,” said Rice, referring to the Russian parliament.
While certainly true, I can’t help wonder that while Rice denounces the Kremlin’s power, she can’t help be a little jealous of Putin. Especially considering that the American Executive has moved in the same direction over the last decade and a half. Keep glaring into that mirror Condi. Often what we denounce is what we secretly desire.
As for a recommended reading tip on the architectural and political isolation of Bush see Todd S. Purdum’s the excellent “Inside Bush’s Bunker.”
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By Sean — 10 years ago
There are two new articles of note that concern the Georgian War and the low intensity media war against Russia. The first is Neal Ascherson’s “A Chance to Join the World” in the London Review of Books on the present and future of Abkhazia. The second is Mark Ames’ “Editorial Malpractice” or more aptly named on the Exiled site, “Freddy Gets Fingered: How I Busted the Washington Post’s Op-ed Page Editor.” Therein Ames unmasks WaPo‘s “incessant demonization [of Russian and Putin] puts more weight on ideology than on journalistic professionalism–or simple fact-checking.”
In regard to Ascherson’s article, the big question is the future of now defacto 120 mile coastal strip called Abkhazia. Rejoining a nationalist fueled Georgia set on asserting its “sovereign territorial integrity” by force is out of the question. There appears to be little desire to formally attach to Russia though being its client is inescapable and in many ways desirable. Is a new Abkhazian nation state in the making? Interestingly, much of Abkhazia’s fate might fall on the emergence of a Georgian “Willy Brandt” and his ability to avoid the trap of the Oder-Neisse Problem. Here is Ascherson’s take on the issue:
We have seen this trap before. Well . . . any European journalist of my advanced age has seen it. It was called the Oder-Neisse Problem. It consumed hours of soporific briefings and blackened kilometres of dead paper. It kept West Germany safely hobbled to the Western Allies for just over twenty years.
There are differences of scale and detail, but the similarities are sickening. The Oder-Neisse Problem went like this. After the Second World War, Poland annexed the German provinces of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, and expelled their populations – some eight million people. Most of them ended up in West Germany. Egged on by the Americans, the new West German state refused to recognise the new eastern border on the Oder and Neisse rivers, proclaimed that the ‘frontiers of 1937’ were still in force, and demanded that the rest of the world accept the duty to restore Germany’s ‘territorial integrity’. The enormous expellee leagues gained a stranglehold on politics. For decades, it was assumed that anyone who suggested recognising the Oder-Neisse Line was committing political suicide. West German TV daily predicted the weather, cloudy or sunny, in Silesia as well as in Bavaria.
In public, the Western Allies stoutly supported this position. In private, any French or British diplomat would agree that it was odious and unreal. But that was why they valued it. A West Germany firmly shackled to this impossibilist dogma would never be able to do a deal with the Soviet Union, such as leaving Nato in return for reunification. It was only in 1970 that Willy Brandt decided to lead his country out of the trap by recognising the territorial results of the war and the new boundaries. The expellees threatened to destroy him, but nothing happened. The Allies, who had grown fed up with their own hypocrisy, let Brandt have his way.
When will there be a Georgian Willy Brandt? The notion raises hollow laughter in Sukhum. Georgian politicians still insist that Abkhazia is Georgian, use extreme rhetoric about ‘overcoming separatism’ and walk out of meetings to which Abkhazians are admitted. But as with West Germany, the effect of this ‘impossibilism’ is to make Georgia less independent, not more.
Ames’ target is a much easier bird to pick off. English language media’s bias is well known, and from my unscientific survey the Washington Post and the Guardian tend to be the most vociferous in painting Russian and Putin as a neo-Evil Empire. Noting this may be old hat, but constantly necessary in the trenches of the information war. The target of Ames’ ire is WaPo‘s recent attempt to pin the “assassination attempt” against Karina Moskalenko on Putin even though French police showed that there was no attempt whatsoever. When Ames asked Hiatt why the Post didn’t wait for the investigation before charging, trying and convicting Putin, he responded:
“I am aware of newspaper articles in Figaro and the New York Times that quoted unnamed police sources positing the theory that a broken thermometer was the source of the mercury found in Moskalenko’s car,” he said. “These sources were in Paris, where officials may have a foreign-policy reason not to spark a dispute with Russia, and not in Strasbourg, where the investigation was taking place.” He also implied that Moskalenko, who doubted the “broken-thermometer theory,” as Hiatt put it, was more reliable than the investigators. These were incredible charges leveled at Le Figaro and the French political and judicial systems. But was Hiatt right?
Well as Gomer used to say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise” Hiatt wasn’t right. In fact, with “the magic of a couple of phone calls” to Curille Louis, the Figaro reporter who wrote about the police investigation, Ames discovered the following:
“I am frankly surprised that the Washington Post‘s editorial page editor would say something like this without even calling me to see if what he says was true,” Louis told me, stunned and laughing. “It’s simply not true. I used several sources, but the two main sources were a top police official here in Paris and a top investigator from the prosecutor’s office in Strasbourg.” Louis even named the source in Strasbourg–assistant prosecutor Claude Palpacuer. His sources in Paris are reliable people he has been working with for years. Louis explained that the investigators felt they’d probably solved the case after they tracked down the car’s previous owner, a local antiques dealer who had indeed broken an old barometer (not thermometer) in the car shortly before selling it.
I then asked Louis what he thought about Hiatt’s larger assumption: that Le Figaro‘s sources in Paris could not be trusted because the French might be worried about upsetting Russia. Again, Louis laughed in disbelief: “This sounds like a kind of conspiracy theory. You would have to believe that judges and police officials in two cities conspired to manipulate a Le Figaro journalist in order to plant a story that was not very big news here in the first place. Why would the authorities go through all of this effort for such a small story? I find this idea of a conspiracy completely unlikely.” Louis was disappointed at Hiatt’s accusations: “I suppose I might feel honored that the Washington Post bothers to write about me, but you know, I feel a bit surprised. If he called me I could have explained how I wrote the story. But he didn’t try. Quite often we’re very impressed here by how American journalists work, the high standards they use to source stories…. So it’s disappointing to learn that [Hiatt] came to his conclusions about the way I work without even calling me.”
Kudos to Ames. And to Louis, don’t worry if you keep reading English language reporting on Russia the disappointment will becoming something of a second nature. Many of us have become so inured to it that it wears like a second skin.
By Sean — 11 years ago
Western leaders have been hoping and praying that Dmitri Medvedev will be more “liberal” in foreign and domestic policy. According to a LexisNexis search the new President elect’s name is often followed with words like “liberal,” “liberal instincts,” “liberal inclinations,” and the like. It’s not that Medvedev hasn’t given Westerners any reason to hope. Take this exchange from Medvedev’s 18 February interview with Itogi for example:
But now we will soon have a new holiday, the Day of the Lawyer. If only it could help create the rule of law.
I agree. To overcome the legal nihilism preventing the country from developing harmoniously is a long and difficult job. As it turned out, to establish a workable model of a market economy is much easier than laying the foundations of a state in which people respect the letter of the law. This is another demonstration of the thesis that democracy cannot occur in any given place after two or three years. It requires painstaking, persistent work to improve the legal and political system. Of course, one can not forget the distinctive characteristics of the Russian situation. You know, justice has always relied on a mechanism for enforcing its implementation, some kind of public stick. But if it is not based on a set of moral imperatives, on internal convictions and moral principles, if it simply aspires to the crude power of a punitive machine, then the structure it creates will be flawed and ineffective. In the nineteenth century, the Russian government was far from perfect but it was a developed system based on a set of moral and religious values. In the twentieth century, the second part of this disappeared: people were deprived of their faith in God and the state came to demonstrate either naked coercion, which at times was extremely cruel indeed, or weakness and complete failure. These are both equally bad. We all remember what the well known doctrines of the thirties and forties led to, when the talk was of class dictatorship and the presumption of guilt in criminal trials. This helped resolve some tactical problems, but in the long-term planted a time-bomb that ended the very existence of the Soviet state. You have to feel what justice is, accept it voluntarily, not obey it in some insanely prostrate way. The explosion was inevitable, it would have happened sooner or later. People rushed to the other extreme and took to systematically breaking laws. This is what happened in the nineties.
Do you think that the current system of justice is better?
Though based on quite good, solid regulatory framework, our judicial system continues to function, getting its bearings from old traditions. Disregard for the law in various sectors of society remains widespread. Until we change people’s attitudes, until we convince them there is only one law and no one is above it, there will be no change for the better. The strength of the rule of law consists in the fact that no one can influence it. Neither pressure from various authorities, including the most powerful, nor pressure from business nor social forces. Justice should be in harmony with all the participants in this process, and refuse to cave in to anyone.
These are fine words, Dmitry Anatolyevich, but how can they be put into practice?
You can start small. For example, recommend that judges at all levels keep to a minimum all contact with businessmen and even representatives of public services. To retain maximum independence and objectivity.
You can’t put people in a cage.
You don’t have to. It’s enough if you can completely eliminate the personal factor. The more faceless the legal machinery becomes, the stronger it is. I am absolutely convinced of this.
I guess we will have to see which Medvedev Russia and the world will get. Instead of getting to carried away with liberal fantasies, perhaps we should take heed of what Putin told reporters in regard to how his protege might approach foreign policy:
“I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to stop exercising my powers so that they can deal with another person. I am long accustomed to the label by which it is difficult to work with a former KGB agent. Dmitry Medvedev will be free from having to prove his liberal views. But he is no less of a Russian nationalist than me, in the good sense of the word, and I do not think our partners will have it easier with him.”
Oh yeah that. Nationalism. No matter how liberal Medvedev may seem, if anyone thinks he’s going to go against Russia’s short and long term national interests, or more importantly, against the interests of Russia’s elite class, then keep dreaming.
Plus Medvedev has more pressing issues at hand. First and foremost is to establish his own power base in the Kremlin and in Russia’s regions. That process is already starting. Medvedev doesn’t official become president until early May, yet yesterday Putin ordered that the presidential administration to begin working for Medvedev, along with giving him a presidential level security detail. The Moscow Times is speculating that one of Medvedev’s first moves will be to fire the current cabinet and put his own guys in power. Potential members of Medvedev’s “clan” are his former law school chums from Leningrad State University. They include Anton Ivanov, chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court; Ilya Yeliseyev, deputy chairman of Gazprombank; Konstantin Chuichenko, head of Gazprom’s legal department; and Nikolai Vinnichenko, head of the Court Marshals Service. This group is already being dubbed as the “civiliki.” All of these guys have come up on Medvedev’s tail. For example, between March 2001and March 2005, Chuichenko went from heading Gazprom’s legal department to being elected to the supervisory board of Sibneft. The others on this list shot up to important positions in media, energy, and the legal system. And the ride on Medvedev’s tail brought others riding on the civiliki tails. Such is the nature of Russian “networkism,” as Alena Ledeneva told Graham Stack in December. The question now becomes whether there will be a clash between Medvedev’s clan of civiliki and the siloviki.
If establishing a base in the Kremlin was difficult enough, it appears that he will have to do the same in Russia’s regions. Andrei Serenko’s recent article in Nezavisimaya gazeta, “Revenge from the Underground,” is a good example of what Medvedev might face. Serenko notes that the Presidential elections produced cleavages between provincial political elites. In Volgograd, for example, elites split into a “high turnout party” and a “low turn out party.” The former, mostly comprising of governors and mayors, saw the election as a test of their “professional aptitude and administrative effectiveness.” Translated, regional leaders saw high turnouts as a way to demonstrate their loyalty to the center, and specifically Putin’s choice, Medvedev. The latter are those elites’ local rivals. The “low turnout party” were those who recently lost power to the local political bosses and now seek to exact “administrative revenge.” The hope was that lower numbers for Medvedev would give the “low turnout party” a way to discredit their rivals in Moscow’s eyes.
As Dmitri Savelev, the director of the Institute for Effective Government, told Serenko, an “administrative partisan movement” has arisen in Russia’s Central and Souther provinces bent on returning ousted “old elites” to power. One way to do this was by messing with Medvedev’s local returns. The “Yarolsav opposition,” for example, tried to discredit their rivals by “intentionally discrediting the numbers of [Yaroslav] Governor Bakhukov and lowering the electoral returns for Dmitri Medvedev in the region to 30 percent, and at the same time increasing the returns for Liberal Democratic Party to 20 percent and more.” It doesn’t seem like the Yaroslav “low turn out party” was very successful. Returns show that Medvedev got 63 percent compared to Zhirinovsky’s 13 percent. In the Duma elections (also held on March 2), United Russia got 49 percent compared to LDPR’s 13 percent.
This doesn’t mean that Medvedev isn’t going to have to reestablish central control. As Serenko concludes, while regional leaders formed a united front for December’s Duma elections, the presidential election has “intensified competition among various groups of regional elites, thereby shaking the stability of the regional political system which was formed during the rule of Vladimir Putin. It’s obvious that the task of restoring this stability will be one of the priorities for Dmitri Medvedev’s administration.”
Taming the center and the periphery. Sounds like Dima already has a lot on his plate even before he actually gets to sit at the table. And people wonder why Putin is sticking around as Prime Minister.
By Sean — 12 years ago
Though the following has little do with Russia, (though one might think of it in terms of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy forced down historians’ throats in the Soviet period), it concerns my profession and thus my livelihood. The state of Florida has passed and Jeb Bush has signed a bill banning “revisionist” history from Florida public schools. New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman takes the bill to task in a column in the LA Times. Essentially, the bill prevents the teaching of “revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” American history is not to be taught as “constructed,” but based on historical “facts.” Forget that these nimrods in the Florida Legislature haven’t a clue about what they are talking about. I don’t think passing intellectual judgments on philosophy and complicated historical methodologies should be left to legislators. But references to such charged terms like “postmodernism” and French post-structuralism are enough to incite fear in those who are trying to protect the sanctity of American history. By sanctity, I mean a history that not only tells the story of the powerful in historical terms (usually a history where white, wealthy males are the primary historical agents), but more importantly reproduces their hegemony in the present. The rich and powerful’s right to rule is thus naturalized in history. The only role for history is, as Althusser suggested, to “reproduce the means of ideological reproduction.”
History in Florida public schools is not taught so students can challenge how there are many pasts, and a multiplicity of understandings of them. They are taught that there is a singular historical narrative for America. This of course is the worst aspect of “revisionism” in that it’s state sponsored. In addition, as Zimmerman cogently points out the bill is based on a misconception about the history of the historical profession:
“Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.
The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.
There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.
Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power ’60s, the concept of historical interpretation has been at the heart of our profession from the 1920s onward. Before that time, to be sure, some historians believed that they could render a purely factual and objective account of the past. But most of them had given up on what historian Charles Beard called the “noble dream” by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize that the very selection of facts was an act of interpretation.
That’s why Cornell’s Carl Becker chose the title “Everyman His Own Historian” for his 1931 address to the American Historical Assn., probably the most famous short piece of writing in our profession. In it, Becker explained why “Everyman” — that is, the average layperson — inevitably interpreted the facts of his or her own life, remembering certain elements and forgetting (or distorting) others.”
As one UCLA historian said to me when I told him about the law, “Isn’t revising history our job!?” Indeed. I wonder if American historians will have to one day perform the American equivalent to Soviet historians’ “Lenin sandwich” to get around the censors. For those who don’t know what the “Lenin sandwich” was, it was when Soviet historians in the 1960s and 1970s would begin and end their works with a quote from Lenin to evade censors and basically write decent histories in-between.
Such is the present strength of anti-intellectualism in American political culture. To think I thought all these tired debates about “revisionism”, “postmodernism,” “relativism,” and historical “facts” were sorted out in the 1990s. God I hope that this isn’t a sign of their return, especially since the above terms have been so watered down and popularized that they hardly retain any of their former intellectual rigor.