Podcast: The Fate of Minsk II and Gender, Sex, and Putin

19 Feb



Balazs Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Ukraine and Eastern Europe. His most recent article is “What Did Minsk II Actually Achieve?

Valerie Sperling, professor of Political Science at Clark University and author of Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia (Oxford, 2014).

Podcast: War in the Donbas and Mr. Putin

12 Feb


Here’s the first of a new weekly podcast covering Eurasian politics, society, and history.


Christopher MillerMashable‘s Senior Correspondent covering world news, particularly the post-Soviet space and especially Ukraine. You can read Chris’ reporting from Ukraine here.

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is also the co-author with Clifford Gaddy of the recently released second edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.

You can read my review of Mr. Putin here.

Subscribe to the podcast on ITunes!

Putin’s World

9 Feb


I wrote a review of Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s newly expanded edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin for OpenDemocracy. Here’s an excerpt:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said that President Vladimir Putin lives ‘in another world.’ Putin was delusional, out of touch with reality, and perhaps even crazy. Some observers have since argued that Putin believes his own propaganda. But to think that Putin is delusional or even crazy is more a projection of our assumptions, our fears and our world onto Putin. In fact, argue Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their newly-expanded portrait Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Putin sees the world fundamentally different than his American and European counterparts. Putin’s world is a combination of the lineages of Russian history and culture, and his personal experiences, and the contexts that have shaped them. These provide the circumstances for Putin’s motivations and actions. Figuring out what drives Putin to act the way he does is essential, Hill and Gaddy insist, because to not do so will lead to gross miscalculations on how to confront him.

Who is Vladimir Putin? It is a question often posed, perhaps too often, in numerous books and articles. Uncovering the Putin mystery has become more acute since the crisis in Ukraine, when to many, Putin has become erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. There are enough Putin books to form their own academic niche, Putinology. In most of these texts, Putin always plays the villain, a vile, corrupt, and power-hungry figure who seeks to expand and maintain his singular grip on power, to restore the Russian empire and even the Soviet Union. In these renditions, Putin appears as a caricature of a super villain, an image, one suspects, Putin secretly enjoys.

Mr. Putin fits uneasily within this canon. Putin is the singular focus, and his life, world view, and actions epitomise the system as a whole. What is refreshing about the narrative is that it lacks the gory details of the ‘Putin regime.’ Moral pontifications and condemnations are absent. Also missing are retellings of already well-worn information about the various conspiracies involving Putin and other drumbeats of authoritarianism. Other Putin biographers have done this service. In addition, many of these episodes in the Putin narrative speak more to our concerns than uncovering Putin’s motivations. When Hill and Gaddy address scandals involving Putin, like the infamous food scandal in St Petersburg in 1992, they try to figure out what Putin learned from these events, and how they influenced his future perceptions and actions. It’s an invitation into Putin’s world.

Still, Putin is a hard nut to crack hence all the speculation about his biography. The information we have about his early life, time in the KGB, as an agent in Dresden, Germany, his days in St Petersburg in the 1990s, and his improbable, yet quick, rise to power, has been tightly packaged. As are his personal habits, public appearances, and publicity stunts. Putin and his team are masters of the image successfully turning the brand Vladimir Putin into a construct where the spectator fills the content. Putin can be anyone and no one: a KGB agent, a free marketeer, a populist, a nationalist, a muzhik [regular guy], and never really be any of these. To pin Putin with one identity only evokes a slew of contradictory identities. Hill and Gaddy liken him to the British cartoon favourite Mr Benn who dons one character after another or as Masha Gessen titled her anti-Putin screed, he’s the man without a face.

Yet these are the texts biographers have to work with, replete with their many narratives and meta-narratives. To make matters even more difficult, much of the Putinist texts are not constructed to represent the truth or reality. They are packaged to illicit a response with which Putin analyses and judges. The key to understanding Putin is to recognise how he uses information to tell him who we think he is and how that communicates who we are, what we want, and what our interests are. For Putin, the goal is to not to represent himself, but to be represented. Putin is the ‘ultimate international political performance artist.’ I would call him the ultimate postmodernist.

Read the whole review here.

Moscow’s INION Library Burns

31 Jan


I learned this morning from my Facebook feed that the Academic Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION) caught on fire destroying the third floor and causing the roof to cave in. There are conflicting reports on whether any of INION’s library perished in the flames. Vladimir Fortov, the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Kommersant that 15 percent of the materials in INION were damaged. However, the institute’s director Yuri Pivovarov told TASS that “The depositories were not harmed—the building was damaged and the employees of the institute have nowhere to work.” He credited the 147 firefighters who fought the blaze for saving the books. “These guys (the firefighters) did everything they could to save the books. What remains, I think, we will rebuild.” Let’s hope so. Still the situation is catastrophic. Fortov summed things up: “This is a major library in the world. Unique materials are collected there and its scientific work is arranged so that every Russian scientific institute uses this library. To us, all this resembles Chernobyl.”

This is not just a major loss for Russian academia; it’s a tragedy for international social sciences. INION is one of Russia’s best libraries. For those not familiar with its academic importance, INION’s library was founded in 1918 and houses over 14 million books, rare texts in ancient Slavic languages, documents from the League of Nations, UNESCO, the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, and reports from the legislatures of the United States, England, Italy and others since 1789. INION is also part of an international interlibrary loan system with 874 institutions spanning 69 countries. INION hosts the German Historical Institute Moscow and the Center for Franco-Russia Research as well. Last time I was there, it also housed two excellent academic bookstores, a ROSSPEN store and another I can’t remember the name of or locate on the internet.

The cause of the fire, it seems, was a short circuit in the electrical system. Moscow fire officials conducted an inspection of the institute in March 2014, fined 70,000 rubles, and gave it until January 30, 2015 to get things up to snuff. Whether the institute’s management made the repairs or not is unknown. Looks like all that doesn’t matter anymore . . .

I have really fond memories of working at INION during my dissertation research. It was a great alternative to the crowdedness of the Lenin Library. It was adjacent to a metro, had a comprehensive catalog and rich holdings, easy to navigate and a great cafeteria to boot. I also bought a lot of books from its bookstores. You couldn’t ask for more in a library. It will take a long time for INION to be a functioning library again, if ever. All I can say is what a tragedy.

Krugman on the Russian Economy

19 Dec

Over at the NYT, Paul Krugman has written some interesting posts on Russia’s economic woes: Putin on the Fritz; The Ruble and the Textbooks; Notes on Russian Debt, and Putin’s Bubble Bursts. Essentially, Krugman notes that falling oil prices and the collapse of the ruble have combined to add stress on the “terms of trade stock.” He explains:

What’s going on? Well, it turns out that Putin managed to get himself into a confrontation with the West over Ukraine just as the bottom dropped out of his country’s main export, so that a financing shock was added to the terms of trade shock. But it’s also true that drastic effects of terms of trade shocks are a fairly common phenomenon in developing countries where the private sector has substantial foreign-currency debt: the initial effect of a drop in export prices is a fall in the currency, this creates balance sheet problems for private debtors whose debts suddenly grow in domestic value, this further weakens the economy and undermines confidence, and so on.

Krugman fleshes this out in a longer column:

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.

But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?

Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.

In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.

Except for one thing, he adds, corruption.

The reason why Russian companies have so much debt is because elites have cannibalized the companies they run by skimming off the top and shipping that money abroad.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

Basically, Putin’s kleptocracy worked fine and dandy as long as there were enough petrodollars to sustain the theft. Now that the price of oil has plummeted, those accrued foreign currency debts are coming back with a vengeance. So this economic crisis is no blimp, but based on the very structure of the Putinist economy. There’s no quick remedy for this.