You have to wonder if there’s a big, untapped pool of stupid people out there. I mean, somebody must think there is, because otherwise Boris Nemtsov’s cheering section would stop featuring him in lengthy interviews stiff with beefcake photos of him, which get about 50 lies to the gallon. Bloggers of Anatoly Karlin’s calibre blew his “Putin is bad for Russia” report into the weeds nearly a year ago, dissecting it mercilessly until even people who flunked out of math in Grade 6 could grasp that his figures have no relationship to reality, and that he must have learned demographics in a far more oxygen-rich atmosphere than this one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at this I’ve-got-such-a-crush-on-you declaration of schoolboy love to Boris Nemtsov, from Mumin Shakirov. Just in time for Valentine’s Day!! I couldn’t find much about Shakirov, except that he works for RFE/RL as well as Open Democracy, does a lot of interviews with people willing to bad-mouth Russia with surprisingly little prodding, and is supposedly a producer. Of romantic comedies, is my guess; you’ll see why. Anyway, he sounds like one of those bitter émigrés who is eager to show his new country what a good citizen he is by selling out his former country, and interviewing the like-minded to make it look like the base of support against their former country is huge. RFE/RL swept up a bunch of those dissidents, back when it was a startup – except what they say is the truth, and not propaganda. It’s only propaganda when the enemy uses it.
I know I promised to stay away from Open Democracy, and I tried; I really did. I was just kind of poking around, looking for something for my next post, and that story just sort of bubbled to the surface. What was I gonna do – ignore it? You know if you don’t object, it implies agreement. So, come on: let’s play, “Who believes that?”
The article is entitled, “Who was Mister Putin? An Interview with Boris Nemtsov”. Catchy title, right? Obviously framed to imply how forgettable Putin is, that kids in maybe the generation being born right now will ask one day who he was, because he’ll just be a name in a few books. Except that his approval rating is around 72% right now, and that’s after it slipped a bit. Boris Nemtsov, by way of contrast, does not have to worry about being forgotten by the Russian people, because you have to be noticed before you can be forgotten. And I might have missed a rating for Boris Nemtsov that broke into double digits, but I don’t think so. Unless we’re talking Washington, of course – Nemtsov is quite a bit more popular in Washington than Putin is. Just not with, you know, the people he’d like to lead.
In the very first words out of his mouth, responding to a softball setup from his interviewer, we see how Nemtsov fancies the “Prisoner of Conscience” label. “I never thought that at the age of 52 I would end up spending the New Year in a cold, solitary confinement cell as a prisoner of conscience”, he confides. Who believes Boris Nemtsov is a Prisoner of Conscience? Who believes that?
I hope you were skeptical. According to the first definition of Prisoner of Conscience, such an individual is “Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.” Wow; sounds like Nemtsov so far, right? Oh, wait, wait. I forgot to mention the codicil, “We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own.”
Has Boris Nemtsov ever advocated the overthrow of the Russian government while speaking to a foreign audience? Well, see what you think. “If you break corruption, you will break Putin”, he says in a speech at Columbia University. Coverage by another source of the same speech reports Mr. Nemtsov’s “visit to the United States included a meeting with Michael McFaul, President Obama’s top Russia advisor, U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin and David Kramer, Executive Director of Freedom House, on Capitol Hill.” Sound like conspiring with a foreign government to overthrow your own, to you? Still not convinced? Scroll down to the last paragraph of the latter reference. The part where Mr. Nemtsov asserts “there might not be a peaceful ending to [the Putin/Medvedev “tandem”]”. He even asserts in closing that unless Mr. Putin makes the “brave gesture” of – God save us – “releasing Mikhail Khodorkovsky”, he can’t expect to get more than a 10% chance of remaining in office. I guess he doesn’t read polls.
Imagine for a second that’s Barack Obama, in 2008. He’s delivering a speech at Far Eastern State, in Vladivostok. He says, “Break the military-industrial complex, and you break Bush”. He allows there might not be a peaceful ending to the Bush/Cheney hold on power. Then he heads off to snuggle with Medvedev’s point man on the USA and a couple of Duma members. How long do you think his political career would last? Nemtsov ought to thank his lucky stars guys like Putin and Medvedev are in charge, instead of somebody like Ivan the Terrible. He’d be so deep in the black right now they’d have to bring in his sunlight in little bottles.
Speaking of being locked up in the dark, I couldn’t help but notice Mr. Nemtsov says he was confined in a “stone dungeon”, that he hadn’t any water or cigarettes with him because the police gave some to him, that his glasses were taken from him along with the usual belt and shoelaces so you can’t hang yourself, and that it was too dark in his cell even to read. Yet he somehow had a pen and paper with him that were overlooked in the police search, and there was just enough light to write a detailed note describing the dimensions of his cell and the absurdity of the charges against him. Although he was in solitary confinement, by some magic his note was smuggled out – perhaps by a Leprechaun! – so that the world could be made aware of this latest example of Stalinist sang-froid, courtesy of the western press.
Who believes that? That’s what I thought.
Next up in the parallel universe category is Nemtsov’s suggestion – again prepped by professional accomplice and facilitator Shakirov, that “everyone is unhappy with Putin, except his closest friends”. If that’s true, he has a hell of a lot more close friends than Nemtsov does. How does this supposed unhappiness with Putin square with a 72% approval rating in the polls, and the grudging acknowledgement of Reuters that if the election were held today, United Russia would win a “solid victory” that would see their next closest competitor – the Communist Party – poll less than half of their total? Only Putin’s closest friends are not unhappy with him? Who believes that? That’s what I thought.
I loved the excerpted line, too, where he said, “I had a dream in which Yeltsin was trying to persuade me to join Putin. But I couldn’t do that. That’s not how my mother raised me”. With the greatest respect to dear old Mom, she must have limited her counsel to political loyalty- Boris Nemtsov has been married three times (or, at least, had 4 children by 3 different women). I’m sure that’s not how his mother raised him, either. I’m not dumping on him for that; I’ve been married 3 times myself. But I don’t give interviews in which I pretend to be some kind of incorruptible saint. I also wouldn’t attribute any of it to the way my Mom raised me, because she tried to talk me out of the first two. I didn’t listen. I’d be careful of attributing my character to my upbringing if I wasn’t the Pope. Sometimes not even then.
Moving along, we see that – according to Mr. Nemtsov – Putin’s base of support consists of “the older generation, including quite a few state officials, people who depend on state sinecures. It’s those who hardly ever use the Internet and who watch pro-Kremlin TV. Unfortunately, they are still in the majority.”
Seriously, does he even know what country he’s talking about? I’m not kidding, here; somebody this out of touch with the country has no business agitating to run it – I’d be as likely to turn my car over for maintenance to a mechanic who couldn’t tell me how many wheels were on it.
The population of Russia in 2010 was comprised 14.8% of those aged 0-14 years, 71.5% of those aged 15-64, and 13.8% of those aged 65 and over. The median age for males is 35; for females, 41. Once again, Mr. Putin’s approval stands at over 70%. But somehow, they are all “the older generation…who hardly ever use the Internet and watch pro-Kremlin TV.”
But people are starting to wise up, Nemtsov tells us, so that spells curtains for Putin. “…some 40 million people use the Internet, this figure is growing, and the lion’s share, the young people, are better informed” he assures his listeners. I’ll say it’s growing – it jumped by 20 million while he was talking about it. In fact, Russia has just under 60 million users. Russia’s Internet penetration is at 42.8%, exploding from only 2.1% in 2000. It’s the biggest telecommunications and mobile market in Europe. But somehow (I’m starting to get a much better feel for why his report on Putin’s performance, complete with graphs and statistics, was received with such guffaws and ridicule) only the 70+% that support Putin and don’t use the Internet are the ones who don’t really know what’s going on in the world, except for what’s on pro-Kremlin TV. Sure you wouldn’t like to take a mulligan, Mr. Nemtsov?
Who believes that? That’s right, nobody.
A good deal of boilerplate blather about Nemtsov’s ideas on counterterrorism follows, allowing him – through Shakirov – to introduce the notion that Putin’s government conducted a “false-flag” attack at Domodedovo to boost its own popularity and distract people from what a shitty job he’s doing, all the while denying that he thinks this is what happened. I won’t bore you with it, or the back-patting around his accomplishments as governor of Nizhny Novgorod, at which he was actually quite a success.
The next whopper comes when Mr. Nemtsov disavows having anything to do with the country’s finances at the time the ruble collapsed, and the country defaulted on its debt. “In my capacity as deputy prime minister, I was not responsible for finance. I actually learned about the default from Interfax news”. Do tell. You see, I find that odd, because the New York Times described Mr. Nemtsov as “an architect of Russia’s fiscal strategy” in July 1998; that seems a curious description of somebody who had no responsibility for finance. Mr. Nemtsov further said “some important indicators were beginning to move up. He added that the Government would soon begin to issue regular and detailed economic reports to investors that would prove his point.” Don’t you think that was just a little irresponsible, considering he had nothing to do with finance? Good thing the reporter didn’t ask him if he should get a divorce, or have his gall-bladder removed.
Mr. Nemtsov also assured whatever portion of the global population that reads the New York Times the ruble would not be devalued. That was on July 28th, 1998. On August 17th, three weeks later….well, you know what happened. The Russian economy thundered into the ground on afterburner, the ruble spun in behind it, and Russia was forced to default on its internal debt. But the Deputy Prime Minister knew nothing of what was coming. Of course, why would he? He had nothing to do with finance.
But wait – there’s more. In this memo to Sherry Jones, producer of the Frontline documentary, “The Crash”, Time Magazine’s Moscow bureau correspondent (and author of “Russia in the Red”) Andrew Meier provides her priceless background information – from his personal knowledge – to be used in her program. The whole thing provides a breathtaking view, albeit from a western perspective, of the events leading up to a fiscal catastrophe of global proportions, and is fascinating reading. However, for now, let’s just skip to 1998.
One thing you’ll probably notice right away is that Anatoly Chubais was in it up to his neck, from where things started to go a little shaky right through the situation spinning terrifyingly out of control. Chubais was the first to say the word “devaluation” with a view to doing it, rather than misleading people that Russia had no such intention. This would be the same Nemtsov-confidante and longstanding pal who spoke up for Nemtsov in court on the occasion of his recent detention. But Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov, who had nothing to do with finance, knew nothing of what was to come.
Now, skip to the countdown, starting August 13th, 1998. Blue chips dropped more than 20%, the RTS fell 6.5% overall, and the Moscow stock exchange shut down. The scent of terror was in the air. August 14th. Kiriyenko, Dubinin and Zadornov got together, late at night, to discuss what could be done. August 15th. Kiriyenko called a meeting at his dacha, which included Chubais, Dubinin and Gaidar. That same day – contrary to Nemtsov’s version in which he and Fyodorov both learned the terrible news via Interfax, and were “shocked” – Fyodorov “rushed to the Metropol Hotel near the Kremlin to tell the IMF delegation. “I warned them of the coming suicide,” Fyodorov would later say. “I tried to get them to stop Kiriyenko. But I realized right away–they knew, they were in on it and they decided to keep quiet about it.”
Wikipedia lists Nemtsov and Kiriyenko, as well as Chubais, as the “young reformists” who tried to improve Russia’s economy using IMF credits, and elevated the national debt to $22.6 Billion. Somehow, they didn’t get the memo that Nemtsov had no financial responsibility.
Sunday, August 16th. The cabinet (which I presume included Nemtsov, unless he was off windsurfing or something) took a straw vote, and ruled unanimously in favour of devaluation. That evening, Kiriyenko, Chubais and Yumashev went by helicopter to tell Yeltsin (many of whose stories suggest he was also totally ignorant of what was coming).
Monday, August 17th. Russia defaulted on $40 Billion in GKO’s. Banks collapsed. The stock market tanked. Hardest hit was the emerging middle class. Completely surprised? Boris Nemtsov. Uh huh. Who believes that?
Not at all like the Boris Nemtsov of 2002 and 2003; then, even though he was only a Duma deputy in 2002 and in 2003 the Union of Right Forces lost all their seats, Mr. Nemtsov was “in all those meetings with businessmen and saw everything” to do with Khororkovsky’s persecution by Putin, just because he was intelligent, strong and rich. Again, uh huh.
This is followed by a sidesplitting account of how Medvedev would fire Putin, if he were only as tough as Nemtsov is. Don’t laugh, because Mr. Nemtsov believes this. Yes, the same guy who blubbered about how he had to sleep on the floor in a cold cell, and had his followers try to bring in plastic chairs to court to protest that he had to stand for 4 hours, says Putin is really a pussycat because “you need balls to be a tough guy”. How about that? The real tough guy is Boris Nemtsov.
Who believes that?