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Russia: U.S. Rival, Dependent, Victim
Reform or robbery
The U.S. establishments and medias treatment of post-Soviet Russia has been confused, sometimes hostile, and more often than not, apologetic. This is because Russia occupies the odd position of being simultaneously a rival and obstacle, on the one hand, and a dependent and virtual client state, on the other hand. It is a pale shadow of the former Soviet Union in economic and military power, but it still has both formidable nuclear arms and national interests as a regional power that conflict with those of the United States, which is clearly trying to extend its control over international oil into the Caspian and other areas adjacent and important to Russia. The United States has bullied and threatened the weakened Russia, expanding NATO to the Russian border and carrying out a military assault on its Yugoslav ally with Russia forced to stand by, bluster, and play an exceedingly weak diplomatic hand. (In fact, Russias unwillingness to provide material or other aid to Yugoslavia, which left its ally completely isolated, was important in allowing NATO to smash Yugoslavias civil society and force it to accede to terms close to a full surrender.)
Russias most recent attack on Chechnya was at least in part a response to the humiliations and setbacks it has suffered from U.S. and NATO policy, with its public receptive to Russias standing tall and showing that it too can pulverize somebody, and Russian leaders fearing that weakness on Chechnya would only encourage further U.S.-NATO encroachments on its southern borders and in oil terrain.
Reform As Looting and Destruction
On the other hand, Russia is on the U.S.-IMF-World Bank payroll, and its reform process, encouraged and engineered with U.S. and other Western help, is one of the great success stories of modern history. Success here means attainment of the objectives sought by those sponsoring reform. Clearly that does not imply any benefits to the Russian people. The winners in Russia have been the members of the tiny elite of apparatchiks, criminals, opportunists, and agents of the West engaging in what we may call post-socialist primitive accumulationsurely the greatest short-term plundering operation in human history. The Russian GDP per capita has fallen by some 50 percent under reform, also a historical record for what was an advanced country, and reform has effectively returned Russia to Third World status in the course of a single decade. Given in addition the huge upward redistribution of wealth and income and the immense capital flight (some $150 billion, approximately equal to Russias external debt), it is entirely understandable that an estimated 90 percent of the population is worse off materially, many desperately worse off, than under Soviet rule.
What then was the objective of the reform sponsors that makes the Russian experience a success? The answer is that they wanted Russia to exit permanently and irreversibly from socialism, and even, if possible, from social democracy. This is clear from the fact that the reform process was steadily encouraged and pushed despite the clear evidence of the corruption, theft, capital flight, collapse of real investment, and social catastrophe that it was observably producing. At each phase of crisis and intervention in Russia the Clinton administration and IMF have pressed for more reform. Irreversibility at all costs was the rule. Slowing the action might allow for second thoughts, and in the words of economists Jeffrey Sachs and David Lipton, Unless hundreds of large firms...are quickly brought into privatization, the political battle over privatization will soon lead to a stalemate to the entire process, with the devastating long-term result that little privatization takes place at all (in Vittorio Corbo et al., Reforming Central and Eastern European Economies, World Bank, 1991). A little undemocratic, perhaps, but completely typical of economists serving the empire. We may recall the NAFTA economists widely agreeing that one merit of NAFTA was that it locked in Mexico, which is to say locked out Mexican voters from any ability to decide their future.
So the Russian people have had to pay the extremely heavy pricea crushed and looted societyexacted by the Free World for its financial support to the indigenous managers who were doing the dirty work. Quite a deal. The top manager, Boris Yeltsin, is of course a hero in the West, having succeeded in keeping the lid on any upheaval by his abused people as they were returned to the Third World and while the Russian transition to capitalism was made irreversible. He is admitted to be a flawed leader, but still a hero for having done what the West wanted done in Russia. Much can be overlooked for such a leader and great man.
Of course it is argued in the West that Yeltsin and company brought democracy to Russia. But Russian democracy is a fraud: a temporary facade and cover for a plutocracy that cannot be dislodged by electoral processes. The one time the reformers openly contested for public support, in December 1993, Anatoly Chubaiss Russias Choice party got under 10 percent of the votes, so reform has had to proceed under the umbrella of deception, electoral fraud, and coercion. The Russian government is no more a servant of the Russian people than the Soviet dictatorshipmaybe even less so as its leaders are not only rapacious but also lack any ideological or institutional basis for restraint or for assuming any larger obligations. What is more, not only has democracy not taken root, the economic, social and political disasters of reform, and the complete failure of the nominal democracy to do anything whatever for the victimized majority, have discredited it, and future elections, if they occur, are likely to be even more fraudulent and meaningless than that of 1996 (see my Russian Election Fraud, Z Magazine, October 1996).
There is also a large element of hypocrisy in the Western pretense that Yeltsin deserves honor because of his association with the new democracy in Russia. For one thing, each Yeltsin action eroding Russian democracy, such as his military assault on the Russian parliament in 1993, and his subsequent forced (and probably fraudulent) revision of the constitution centralizing power in his hands, was accepted without question in the West. Even more important, as noted, the Western supported reform, carried out unrelentingly to the injury of the great majority, has discredited democracy, and has also created an economic, social, and political environment in which democracy is not likely to prosper or survive. Clearly, the desire for an irreversible move from socialism to capitalism far outweighed any desire to provide an institutional base for democracy. This is hardly surprising for a Western establishment that put in place and gave long and unstinting support to Marcos, Mobutu, and Suharto (until they ceased to be able to provide that critically important favorable climate of investment).
Given this complex relationship, the United States and its allies have consistently supported the reformer-looter faction, but have felt little compunction in taking advantage of Russias weakness and dependency, humiliating it, pushing it around, and criticizing its behavior. At times when the favored faction is threatened, however, the West has rushed to the barricades in support. When Russia first assaulted Chechnya in 1996, as the Wests main concern was getting Yeltsin reelected, criticism of the Russian action was modest, the IMF quickly mobilized financial aid for Yeltsin, and the great Western powers even held a meeting on terrorism in Moscow to give the terrorizing reformer an electoral push. In the renewed assault on Chechnya in 1999-2000, the West has been slightly more critical, but only in words not translated into action. Of course Russia is bigger than Yugoslavia and has nuclear arms, but it is also a reforming virtual client state. And we want to keep engaged (as Clinton says) to help further the reform process and use our leverage to advance democracy, as we so comprehensively failed to do in Suhartos Indonesia for 33 years. The Wests gentle treatment of Yeltsins reformist heir Vladimir Putin follows accordingly.
The Media Support Reform
The mainstream media have long followed in the wake of these policy considerations and preferences. From the beginning of the Yeltsin regime and reform process in 1991 to the present the media have played down the economic-social catastrophe that has accompanied it; and when they have touched on the negative features of reform they have tended to blame them on the deep scars of Communism, not an inappropriate reform process, and certainly not Western connivance in the interest of irreversibility.
The Times and other mainstream media have eagerly sought upturns in the years of decline (Celestine Bohlen, Russians Put Anxiety Aside and Eke Out a Living, NYT, March 1, 1992; Michael Specter, In Moscow Baby Boom, a Vote for the Future, NYT, August 26, 1997), and they have offered a stream of opinion pieces on the bright side of Russian trends (Thane Gustafson and Eugene Lawson, The Good News From Russia, September 28, 1999; Martin Malia, Good News From Russia (Yes, Its True), NYT, December 23, 1999; Anders Aslund, Underselling Russias Economy, NYT, January 18, 2000). They have rarely, if ever, discussed the collapse in real investment, which has recently been only some 10 percent of the level of the last Soviet years. Those who have been enriched by reform have not saved and invested, they have looted, speculated, and laundered money. This points up calamitous economic failure on the establishments own usual criterion of productivity, which means that reform was without any redeeming features whatever, except in making for irreversible structural change. But the media have evaded this fundamental issue, preferring the good news signs that they have peddled each year since 1991.
Corruption also has been treated in low key by the mainstream media, although it has been integral to the privatization process, linked to both organized crime and high echelons of the government (including Yeltsin and Western favorite reformer Anatoly Chubais), an important basis of capital flight, and sporadically admitted by officials and the press to be massive. It wasnt till the story of $10 billion laundered through the Bank of New York broke in August 1999 that Russian corruption became front page news, but even then it was transformed into a problem of gangsterism rather than looting of the state by and with the aid of the reformers (Russian Gangsters Exploit Capitalism To Increase Profits, NYT, August 19, 1999). The analogy with Indonesia is impressive. The United States, IMF, and World Bank turned a blind eye to the Suharto gangs looting for 33 years, because of services rendered, and the media followed in step and paid minimal attention to corruption. In Russia from 1991, with reform going well for the United States, IMF, and looters, corruption was low-keyed by officials, and the media again followed suit. Anti-corruption campaigns have been regularly reported over the years in Indonesia as well as Russia, and the media tend to report them straight without much review of history or structural relationships. Lo and behold, Michael Wines tells us once again that Vladimir Putin has an intolerance for corruption (NYT, January 2, 2000), quoting his supporters on his sincerity on this point, but failing to mention his dismissal of indictments against corruptionalists like Boris Berezovsky, his apprenticeship to the corrupt mayor of St. Petersberg, and the problem of his limited power base and dependence on the Yeltsin-looter faction.
The media have long treated Russian elections with a tolerance never displayed toward Sandinista Nicaragua, whose 1984 election was a sham for the New York Times, whereas the far more dubious Russian election of 1996 was treated as a remarkable achievement and Victory for Russian Democracy (July 4, 1996), not only in the Times but throughout the mainstream media as our sidethe reformerswon. Legitimation of reformers under fraudulent electoral conditions is absolutely standard media practicefor Mexico under the PRI, El Salvador under the state terror regimes of the 1980s, and Turkey under de facto military rule from 1980, as well as Russia. Yeltsin, as the man who delivered the goods, is so revered for his service that even the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is kind toward him, even if it takes pot shots at Russia in Chechnya and elsewhere (Stephen Handelman, Russias Rule by Racketeers, September 20, 1999). For the Times, he was Russias Flawed Reformer (ed., January 1, 2000), whose strengths were an iron will and daring vision for remaking Russia into a free-market democracy. Unfortunately, he lacked the discipline to manage a complex government. So that his mistakes and the economic hardships that so many of his countrymen have endured were not a result of the reforms he pushed so hard, or his alignment with foreign interests (U.S.-IMF) and subservience to their vision, it is just lack of discipline. The fact that his family and cronies prospered while so many of his countrymen suffered, was a coincidence. Chechnya is not a crime, it is a gamble (Russias Chechen Gamble, ed., NYT, September 28, 1999)
The New York Times editorialized recently that what Russia needs is a government that is democratically accountable, that can restore basic services and use taxes to urgently repair a health care system and social conditions that have fallen into deep crisis (Reforms Russia Needs, January 7, 2000). But the reform process pushed by the U.S. government and IMF has been built on non-democratic procedures and budget policies that led steadily and observably to the ugly conditions that the Times now deplores, but which it enthusiastically supported for a decade (while skirting around the facts of the deep crisis). While calling for these new reforms, the paper continues to support the same Yeltsin faction that quite knowingly created the deep crisis. This apologetic combination of self-delusion and hypocrisy would be hard to surpass.
The medias treatment of Vladimir Putin is in this apologetic tradition. A background of long-time KGB service was viewed as sinister when former KGB official Yuri Andropov was Soviet premier (1982-1984), but it is treated lightly for Putin. Putins popularity is admitted to be closely tied to his aggressive pursuit of the Chechnya war. Milosevics assault on Albanians in Kosovo to allegedly build his popularity in Yugoslavia was the basis of great outrage in the mainstream media, justifying the harshest response. But in Putins case an entirely different frame of reference is applied. He has emphasized military action in Chechnya at the expense of more important issues, and the assault on Chechnya is the wrong way to begin. (Reforms Russia Needs, NYT, Jan. 7, 2000). How is that for a hard-hitting critique of genocidal warfare and Putins use of it to win votes.
The key is that Putin is Yeltsins choice as successor, and Putins Unity Party is an allied party of economic reformers, which in alliance with others could help bring reform back to life... (Russias New Parliament, ed., NYT, December 21, 1999). The fact that that reform was a catastrophic failure and that Putin is part of the same network of apparatchiks and crooks who engineered it is of no consequence to the Times or mainstream media in general. Clinton and the transnationals want more reform, and the media follow in step, even though on their own belated admissions what they called reform was organized robbery and an economic failure by any serious measure.
One interesting feature of the Putin prospect is that not only is he a former KGB apparatchik who is thriving politically on the basis of a genocidal war, he is calling for more resources for the military establishment and a strong state. The Times mentions Putins call for a strong state, but they generously note his show of personal energy and heightened governmental activism, and reserve judgment on whether he means that state to be authoritarian or democratic (January 7, 2000).
When General Aleksandr Lebed was flying high the papers Michael Specter had an accolade to The Strong Man Russians Crave (October 13, 1996). It is not likely that a paper that never expressed serious discontent with the stability that Suharto and Marcos brought to Indonesia and the Philippines over many years will be much dismayed when another strong man comes along who will enforce needed reforms.
The question for Zbigniew Brzezinski is Will Putin be Russias Milosevic or its Pinochet? (Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2000). He explains that A great deal rides on the answer for Russia and for the world. President Slobodan Milosevic took Yugoslavia down the road to nationalist adventurism, bringing bloodshed and a series of historic defeats. In Chile, General Augusto Pinochet imposed brutal order in the wake of anarchy, unleashed a free-market economy and eventually paved the way for democracy. Brzezinski finds Putins initial auguries not encouraging, and he has a strong critique of Putins and Russias recent corruption and aggression. But is it not revealing that this former National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter and commentator with ready access to the media openly puts forward Pinochet as a model of constructive statemanship? Z