Bye-bye, 2011; Happy New Year, everyone! С Новым годом!!
It’s funny, how you can go on reading the same newspaper day after day and, if it’s a foreign paper you mostly read only for the opinion columns, you never notice who the other writers are or what the paper’s political philosophy is. I used to read the Moscow Times every day, but that was during the tenure of the Bush administration. I had taken an interest in foreign politics that year that surpassed by far my interest in what was happening politically in my own country because, as the old saying goes, it’s like sausage; plenty of people are okay with the finished product, but you never want to watch it being made. Anyway, I became a politics junkie on American and Russian issues – the former because the nation had elected a president who offered every appearance of being stone-cold crazy, and the latter because of my Russian wife. The Moscow Times (online edition) became a daily staple, because I enjoyed Chris Floyd’s column, Global Eye, in which he regularly excoriated the Bush administration, and I also browsed it for items of political or military interest on Russia. Suffice it to say that so naive was I, I thought Pavel Felgenhauer actually was an authority on defense matters rather than the western think-tank toady he is. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, all right?
It’s a measure of how long it’s been since I paid any attention to the Moscow Times that I did not notice until today that Chris Floyd was fired in 2006. Apparently his column “no longer fit in with the paper’s plans”. In 2005, the Moscow Times was sold to the Finnish publishing group Sanoma, owned by one of Finland’s richest men, Aatos Erkko (a regular at Bilderberg Group meetings), and members of his family; Sanoma also owns the St. Petersburg Times. At the Moscow Times, former Deputy Editor Andrew McChesney moved up to Editor. I honestly couldn’t say if this marked a change in ideology (although your friend and mine, “Kim Zigfeld” claimed Mr. McChesney as an associate), since I didn’t read most of what was in it.
Well, where was I? Oh, yes; Vladimir Ryzhkov. All that time reading the Moscow Times, and I never heard of Vladimir Ryzhkov. Never took notice of him at all, in fact, until Yalensis pointed out in a comment to the last post that Mr. Ryzhkov would be organizing the next Russian protest march and rally, just as he had organized the last one on December 24th. But he was there all the time, beavering away at the Moscow Times since at least 2002 (as far back as his articles go).
Western journalism long ago abandoned any pretense to objectivity, and it is usually fairly easy to figure out which way a particular source wishes any given issue to go. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for example. Every western source I read at the time of his second conviction damned the Russian judicial system to the blackest depths of hell, to be escorted there personally by Vladimir Putin, for jailing that mild-mannered, incredibly rich prisoner of conscience – why, he wouldn’t hurt a fly, anyone can see that; just look at his little rimless glasses!! He looks like John Denver with a buzz cut!! Plainly, western sources thought Mikhail Khodorkovsky was cute as a button, more or less completely innocent, and only jailed because he represented a political threat to Vladimir the Black-Hearted. Incidentally, a theory to which Mr. Ryzhkov subscribes.
Anyway, the western media is intensely interested in the protests in Russia, and pretty much only those that occur in Moscow, especially since the others across the country seem to be dying out. But a couple of very popular – in the west – “colour revolutions”, those in Georgia and Ukraine, argued persuasively that massive protests in a country’s capital city were quite capable of bringing down the government; in the case of Ukraine, protesters were moved in to Kiev from other regions. The west plainly wants the Moscow demonstrations to succeed in the same objective, and Vladimir Ryzhkov is their point man on the demonstrations. So it behooves us to be interested in him as well.
So, who is Vladimir Ryzhkov? Let’s take a stroll thorough his resume. Mr. Ryzhvov first came to public attention in 1993 as a State Duma member of Russia’s Choice; a party headed by Yegor Gaidar. The principal architect of the Yeltsin-era “shock therapy” and widespread privatizations that left huge sectors of state assets in the hands of a few fabulously wealthy individuals, Mr. Gaidar was immensely popular with Yeltsin’s western advisers. Jeffrey Sachs, ringleader of the “Harvard Boys” , referred to Gaidar as ” the intellectual leader of many of Russia’s political and economic reforms”. Russians who saw their savings evaporate were, understandably, less complimentary.
At that time, Mr. Ryzhkov was stand-up-and-shout-it pro-Kremlin. But that was when the “Great Reformer” was running the show. He ran as an independent in 1999, but later joined a pro-Yeltsin coalition called the Unity Party of Russia. When Vladimir Putin took over, Ryzhkov was dismissed from the coalition. Wikipedia doesn’t say if those two events were related, but Mr. Ryzhkov sure seems to have a hate on for Putin. He’s a Professor of the Moscow Higher School of Economics (somehow, I knew that was coming), and a prolific writer for Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow Times and the St. Petersburg Times; all, to varying degrees, anti-government, with Novaya Gazeta practically foaming off the presses with rage at Vladimir Putin’s temerity in continuing to live.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that the notion the Kremlin ruthlessly controls the media and makes them goose-step to its bloody tune, and that Putin has everyone killed who opposes him, appears more ridiculous with each new issue of Novaya Gazeta and the Moscow Times; the former calls Putin everything but late for dinner, and the latter is only marginally more circumspect. Somehow, enough staff members always seem to survive the hail of poison darts and the gauntlet of sword umbrellas to get the next issue out.
And what is it with Russian economists? Christ, every one of them reckons Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais were geniuses, while Vladimir Putin is the village idiot. The economy blew through the basement on its way to the earth’s core under the guidance of the aforementioned Yeltsin, Gaidar and Chubais, and gained steadily under Putin while accumulating the world’s third-largest cash reserves. Vladimir Ryzhkov pens rhapsodies to western business know-how that has resulted in a Eurozone that may not outlast 2012 and a USA that entered the top-20 list of the world’s most indebted nations, with external debt of greater than 100% of GDP. It seems plain that what attracts Mr. Ryzhkov’s admiration is not the west’s business sense, but its power.
Without further ado, then, let’s take a look at how Mr. Ryzhkov saw his country over years of bitterness and western envy.
Much of his earlier work is behind a pay wall at the Moscow Times. The first western daily to be published in Russia, the Moscow Times has been around since 1992. It has a daily circulation of around 35,000 copies (in a city of somewhere between 12 and 15 million), and is given out free in about 500 business centres, hotels, restaurants and embassies. You might wonder why a newspaper that is handed out free in hard copy needs to have all its electronic content behind a pay wall, and I would be wondering right along with you. Especially since sources like La Russophobe brag that while its circulation is tiny, it is one of the most-cited electronic sources in the world. Well, my commitment to journalistic integrity doesn’t extend as far as subscription, so we’re going to have to start at 2004, with a Ryzhkov piece entitled, “Putin’s Mission Impossible“. Gee: that doesn’t sound very optimistic. Maybe we’d better take a look, from the viewpoint that the author was a relatively experienced politician then and is trying to play as much of a part now as he can in the choosing of Russia’s next leader.
Hmmm…well, something that strikes me right out of the gate is that Ryzkhov is characterizing a hopeless political system (Putin’s) by contrasting it with a utopian and presently non-existing one. I know democracy advocates tend to build their fictional government models based on ideals, but still. “Only honest, well trained bureaucrats, devoted to serving the common good, could reform education, healthcare and the armed forces. Only when they are held accountable for their actions by legislatures will they change their age-old habits. Only strict and vigilant civilian control of the military, law enforcement and the security services can introduce transparency into the enormous “war economy.” To conquer poverty and social stratification, Russia needs independent trade unions and a powerful parliamentary opposition. Only an extensive network of independent media, coupled with independent prosecutors and judges, will allow us to root out corruption. Without democratic institutions, we have little hope of restricting the power of the bureaucracy and of cutting through the red tape that hinders growth.”
Let’s take a look around the world’s premiere democracies, those for which Mr. Ryzhkov has elsewhere expressed admiration, for parallels. Honest, well-trained bureaucrats devoted to serving the public good…let’s try the United Kingdom. Ooooo..nope, sorry. Lord Taylor’s was just one of three cases in 2011 of parliamentarians fiddling their travel expense claims; in Lord Taylor’s case, to the tune of £11,277.00. In his own defense, Lord Taylor contended “it had been a common practice among peers to claim for fake journeys and enter expenses claims with a false address as a main residence, and he believed it was acceptable to do this provided there was a “family connection” with the property.” So much for honesty.
Only when they are held accountable by legislatures…let’s try Canada. I realize Mr. Ryzhkov has not specifically expressed admiration for Canadian democracy, but I’d rate it as highly as any other, and there’s no reason my own country should escape the litmus test. Which, at least according to this source, it fails. “Instead of government “by, for, and of the people,” conducted in open, accountable, and legislative forums, we increasingly have government by executive decree that seems to focus on serving narrow partisan interests rather than the principled public interest. In Canada, this trend is magnified by the dysfunction in the sharing of power among all levels of government – national, provincial, municipal, and aboriginal – which stymies any serious progress on critical issues.” Beat that, Vladimir Putin. Particularly poignant among the largely positive comments to this article is that of Seamus McLuhan: “What is the outcome of collaboration in a society where success is all about self rather than something larger than self? “ You said it, Seamus.
Strict and vigilant civilian control of the military, law enforcement and security services…let’s have a look at the United States. Well, at least one prominent presidential candidate for the upcoming elections this year promises to end civilian control of the military in favour of military commanders. Meanwhile, since the Founding Fathers the USA has had civilian control over the military. That didn’t stop the nation from attacking Iraq on false pretenses, or from leading a regime-change initiative in Libya – while insisting it had nothing to do with regime change – which enabled an al Qaeda-friendly Islamic fundamentalist government. Law enforcement? Generally good and far superior to Russia’s often-corrupt police forces, but not without startling abuses of public trust. Any of these incidents, if they took place in Russia, would be used as exemplary of systemic rot throughout the governing party, and you know it. Rick Perry sounds at least as detached from reality as Zhirinovsky – that the kind of opposition you’re talking about?
It hardly seems fair to me to rail about Putin failing to establish a reliable system that doesn’t really exist anywhere outside conceptualized idealism. There’s nothing wrong with arguing for improvement, but let’s keep it real, what do you say?
Well, we’re going to have to pick things up a bit, or this will turn into a book. Let’s jump to 2006. In the St. Petersburg Times, Ryzhkov argues sarcastically that the delusional Russian government “has been hammering home the image of an unpredictable, aggressive Georgia that is feverishly arming itself for an attack on the defenseless, peaceful enclave of South Ossetia.” This is brought about by the government’s draconian message control via the media, to which he devotes the rest of the article. In 2008, an aggressive and unpredictable Georgia armed and trained by the U.S. government and military did strike South Ossetia. The nation’s leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, only a year before, imposed martial law to crush protest and seized and shut down independent media stations. I have to say you guessed totally wrong on that one, Mr. Ryzhkov.
Forward to 2008 in Mr. Ryzhkov’s work. Family members of Russian bureaucrats, he tells us, ” live in luxurious homes in the west, and their children study there. The money they have stolen from the state budget and major state-owned companies sits in foreign bank accounts”. Let’s recall that the last time Mr. Ryzhkov was politically active for any length of time, he was a devoted supporter of Boris Yeltsin, who handed control of state industries to connected businessmen who became so rich overnight they could easily afford luxurious homes in the west. Indeed, that’s just where several of them went. Mr. Ryzhkov hypothesizes that “corruption and the already large income gap will grow even more“. In fact, minimum wage in Russia was doubled only the year before. And I daresay there is a substantial income gap between the average Russian full-time employee and the aforementioned Mikhail Khodorkovsky – whom Mr. Ryzhkov views as a wronged political prisoner, to the extent he joined in petitioning the U.S. Senate to blacklist Russian political and judicial figures identified as “enemies of YUKOS”.
Another jump, to 2009. Mr. Ryzhkov moaned in “Very Little to Celebrate” what a mess the country was in. Incomes, he wept, have remained almost the same over the last 20 years. Is that so? No, it’s not; it’s bullshit. As you can see here, Russian per-capita GDP adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) rose steadily throughout Putin’s terms, and in 2009 was nearly triple what it was in 1999. Russia’s recovery from the global financial crisis was decidedly more robust than that of the United States. Ryzhkov’s ode to failure sounds like something that might be featured at La Russophobe – where, coincidentally, he received a ringing endorsement that year in which she informed her audience Ryzhkov reminded her of “the good old days when the mighty Moscow Times (circulation, 35,000) was not afraid to speak truth to power“. She also described Mr. Ryzhkov, last summer, as “…with Boris Nemtsov, [one] of the three most significant political figures in Russia today”. High praise, indeed. This is the same source, I need hardly remind you, which regularly referred to Russians as pigs and characterized Russian girls as prostitutes.
Well, we have to move this along – 2010. In another sunny piece of optimism wrapped in high hopes entitled, “Forever Stuck in Stagnation”, Mr. Ryzhkov informs us that “…the situation for small and mid-sized businesses in Russia is worsening in all regions. Companies are closing down, and the unemployment rate is worsening.” Mr. Ryzhkov has no better idea than I do how many small businesses are operating at any time in Russia, as a substantial number are unregistered in order to avoid payroll taxes, and the unemployment rate in the month Mr. Ryzhkov wrote that little pick-me-up was about half what it was when Mr. Putin took the reins from Ryzhkov’s hero, Boris Yeltsin. It declined steadily throughout Vladimir Putin’s leadership except for a blip associated with the global financial crisis. Today, it is at least 2% less than that of the United States.
2010 was also the year Ryzhkov began to give voice to his hopes that the downfall of Putin’s administration lay in increased internet penetration. He dedicated “China and Russia will be Forced to Democratize” to excited rambling about the positive effect of the internet in China on bringing the authorities to heel, interspersed with smug chuckling about blogs and YouTube being used by internet-savvy Russian youth to do an end run around state television. He sings the praises of Deng Xiaoping, “visionary chief architect of Chinese reforms”, and muses ruefully about how much more competent Chinese Communist leaders are in economics and political matters than their Russian counterparts.
As much as I also admire China’s can-do attitude, I’m compelled to point out that in 2010 it shared a berth with Chad, Belarus and Syria for “severely suppressing opposition political activity, impeding independent organizing, and censoring or punishing criticism of the state” according to Freedom house’s “Worst of the Worst 2010“. That wise old visionary architect of reform, Deng Xiaoping, developed a concept known as the Socialist Market Economy. When the Great Leap Forward failed to deliver on its promises, Deng Xiaoping showed willingness to embrace the free market, but it might be characterized as a brother-sister hug in terms of passion. He “remained committed to centralized control and the one-party state”. This reference goes on to suggest, “the fundamental distinction between the Chinese and Western mixed-market economy models lies less in the implementation of the mixed economic model but rather in the underlying authoritarian political philosophy, which eschews Western notions of democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law.”
An authoritarian system, I need hardly mention, which makes that of Vladimir Putin look pretty liberal by comparison. Marxists criticize the Socialist Market Economy model “on the grounds that [it] restores capitalist commodity relations and production while further dis-empowering the working class, leading to a sharp increase in social inequality and the formation of a growing capitalist class.” That more like what you had in mind, Mr. Ryzhkov?
So, here we are back in the now. Vladimir Ryzhkov organized the rally on December 24th, and must have been very excited by the response. He hopes to pull better than a million Russians into the streets for the next one. The big draw at the December rally, and doubtless up in lights on the marquee for the next, was Alexei Navalny. Not much is currently known about Navalny’s ideas on economic reform – I’m hoping more insight will come about with Yalensis’s translation of the Navalny interview with Ekho Moskvy. But he did say that he – as Russia’s leader – would stabilize and legalize privatization.
Just like Ryzhkov’s last hero.