Imagine you’re at the car lot, looking for a new car. You see a sporty model you like…but you notice the 4-cylinder variant costs $6,000.00 more than the 6-cylinder although you can see no other difference between them. When you ask the salesman to explain, he looks at you like you just told him peas are square, and replies, “Because 4 cylinders is more powerful than 6”.
Puzzled, you ask him to take you out for a test drive in the 4-cylinder. Once you get outside of town limits, you ask him to open her up, see what she’ll do. The car is obviously not faster than the 6-cylinder model. You point this out to the salesman, who mashes the gas pedal to the floor. The exhaust note rises to a scream, and the engine makes all kinds of noise, but the car doesn’t go any faster. The salesman looks at you and says, “See? It’s getting more powerful”.
Are you sold yet?
Oh. Well, then, you’re probably not going to buy the notion, advanced by the Valdai Discussion Club (thanks to Kirill for the tip), that the opposition in Russia is growing in influence even as it acknowledges the number of protesters it is able to draw for street demonstrations has steadily declined.
Probably you can think of many more comical analogies to describe this stubborn “less is really more” analysis, but really – what are they thinking? Does the provision that the opposition has become more noisy – and that in the Anglospheric press, not the Russian media – translate to greater power and influence on the part of the opposition? Not in Russia. Where, presumably, it matters.
Oh, wait. The survey – which revealed that just over 50% of respondents believe the Russian “extra-parliamentary opposition” has seen a slight increase in influence over last year – was not a survey of the Russian public, or of Russians at all, save for those who are members of the Valdai Club. We’ll look more closely at them in a little bit. The remainder are “Russia experts” from other countries. Other countries where it doesn’t matter a tin weasel what the public thinks of the Russian opposition since there is no conceivable way it can translate into votes for that group, not to put too fine a point on it. Comes to that, how an opposition that elects its leaders online from a group that has to register in advance as opposition supporters, which is ineligible for a popular vote and which purports to represent less than a fraction of one percent of the population can be considered to have any national influence at all is somewhat of a puzzle.
Perhaps we can learn something from the composition of the Valdai group. Some of the members rotate in and out of membership, chiefly the foreign experts. There is an Advisory Board that is comprised more or less of permanent members. The Club was formed in 2004 by RIA Novosti, the Moscow News, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Russia Profile and Russia in Global Affairs magazines. It has as its mission “to foster a global dialogue about Russia and to provide an independent, unbiased, scholarly analysis of political, economic and social processes in Russia and the world.”
So far, so good – there are few relationships that would not benefit from improved dialogue, right? As I said, the membership is somewhat fluid, but according to the “About” page the present advisory board is made up of 7 people: Svetlana Mironyk, the Editor-in-Chief of RIA Novosti; Sergei Karaganov, Head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy; Timothy Colton, Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University; Piotr Dutkiewicz, Professor of Political Science at Carleton University; Feng Shaolei, Dean of the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China University; Toby Gati, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research under President Clinton, and Alexander Rahr, Director, the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia and a member of the Board of Trustees, Deutschland-Russland.
We’re still fairly simpatico here; not what you could reasonably describe as a Russophobe in the lot. Sergei Karaganov did come from the Moscow Higher School of Economics (Dean, no less) – which I have learned to associate with pseudo-intellectual numpties given to making economic predictions that are like Miracle-Gro fertilizer for mockery – and did describe Mr. Putin as “a street boy turned into a very sophisticated political functionary and manipulator”, but on the whole has been quite fair and seems to have Russia’s best interests at heart. Timothy Colton did co-author a book, “Popular Choice and Managed Democracy: The Russian Elections of 1999 and 2000” and a journal article, “Are Russians Undemocratic?” for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace with Michael McFaul; however, he also told RIA Novosti in 2010 that there was “no effective opposition in Russia”, correctly predicted at that time that Mr. Putin would return to the presidency in 2012 and is also overall quite reasonable. Toby Gati suggested in the National Interest in 2002 that Russia wished to head off an American war with Iraq largely out of self-interest because it might – were the United States to succeed in bringing Iraq to heel and quickly turning it into an American-operated giant oil spigot, which is not quite the way things turned out – depress the world price of oil on which its economy depended, but there is some truth to that and the article was, all things considered, quite balanced. No real alarm bells among the Advisory Board, I hope you will agree. Also no clues as to who stepped over the lunacy line on the subject of the Russian opposition.
Well, then, let’s take a look at the list of contributors. But before we do, I propose we adopt our own index. Since it is the Russia Development Index – totally made up and based on votes from the Valdai membership of experts – which insists the opposition is gaining strength in the days when self-made martyr Sergei Udaltsov (soon, no doubt, to be a “political prisoner”) is left haranguing an empty square after bored demonstrators have gone home, I propose the membership be rated on the Shel Silverstein Index (SSI).
Shel Silverstein was an American poet, songwriter and author of books for both adults and children; he was also a Korean War veteran. But he really hit his prime during the freewheeling, make-love-not-war 1970’s. Although it’s hard to say what might have been his best work – The Giving Tree, Where The Sidewalk Ends or Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball, what shoves him to the front of the line for being the namesake of our index is a few couplets, strung together, about inclusiveness and a love of stories, called “Invitation”. It opened “Where The Sidewalk Ends“; my copy is getting pretty tattered, let’s see if I can make it out…If you are a dreamer, come in, If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer… If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire; For we have some flax-golden tales to spin Come in! Come in!
Ready? Let’s take a look. Uh oh. I don’t think we’re going to have to search very far for dreamers, liars, pretenders and magic-bean buyers. First up, Dreamer and Pretender Sergey Aleksashenko. According to his dishing to the Financial Times – always a sympathetic booster of the Russian Government – “Putin will disappear…the water is already moving under the ice and there is no way of stopping it. We can only discuss how long this might take.” Sure. About 11.5 years from now, I should think. But let’s not leave that reference just yet, because a number of other Valdai contributors and magic-bean buyers were featured in it. Next up, hope-er Mikhail Dmitriev, President of the grand-sounding Center for Strategic Research, which specializes in drawing loopy conclusions from navel-gazing focus groups. Let’s get his take: “Putin has little choice but to make concessions, otherwise he will not be able to rule…This is a serious change when people in his team are losing authority and they will have to compromise to stay in power.” There’s a flax-golden tale, if ever I heard one. Oh, look; it’s Gleb Pavlovsky, Valdai contributor – “The demonstrators are the ones who want order and rules to be followed…They want an honest government.” You don’t say, Gleb, you flax-golden bullshitter, you.
Well, that’s kind of messed up our alphabetical order, but gosh, there were so many great Valdai influencers all together in one story. We mustn’t forget eternal dreamer Boris Nemtsov, who opined this farsighted fairytale for the Valdai Club: according to him, Russia’s future depends entirely on the level of protest, not on Putin. Well, that’s certainly worked very well for all the world’s most powerful countries. My favourite outtakes – “…these rallies and the protest movement in general have virtually become a turning point in Russia’s modern history. The emergence of this movement means the end of “sovereign democracy” and the complete bankruptcy of the corrupt power system built by Vladimir Putin together with Vladislav Surkov”, and “The united opposition has a program of action, in effect, a program of political reforms. It consists of several points, the most important of which are abolition of political censorship, including on TV, and the release of political prisoners. The third point is not only the registration of political parties but also the formation of election blocs, the return of the right to local government, that is, elections of mayors and governors, and, finally, early parliamentary and presidential elections.” Did I say the opposition didn’t have a plan for Russia? Boy, was I wrong. Letting people say whatever they want, including on TV – which they apparently can’t do now although you can find dozens of examples of loose talk that would be pushing the limit anywhere – releasing all the political prisoners, lots and lots of elections. Presumably the newly-freed political prisoners are going to look after the economy, national defense and foreign policy, because everybody else will be too busy deliriously talking smack and campaigning for the next election.
So many more. The delightfully sour and grumpy Vladislav Inozemtsev, gimme-more-democracy bleater, who tells us “Under Putin, the Russian elite has felt completely free to disobey or ignore the laws and rules imposed on ordinary Russians”. Yes, the same Vladislav Inozemtsev who said “Russia is not a dictatorship but a relatively free country where the current regime rules more by consensus than repression, and where no serious threat to the regime seems likely” only 6 months before that. Numpty dreamer Yevsei Gurvich, economist at large who couldn’t predict yesterday’s weather today. Magic-bean buyer Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who felt comfortable reeling off statistics about the protesters at the June 12th rally – 70% have higher education compared with 28% of the population, 5.8% of protesters have an academic degree – when there was a difference of tens of thousands in the accounts of how many were actually there. The police said 22,000, the organizers claimed over 100,000, and journalists estimated 40,000, tops. Liar Nikolai Petrov of the mendacious Moscow Times, who insists Putin’s rule is collapsing; “Knowing that he can’t hang on until the end of his term, he will delay his departure in the hope that conditions will improve enough later for him to make a safe escape.” Pretender Kirill Rogov, who does a little hand jive with the gap between those who approve and disapprove of Putin to make it appear his ratings are cratering, while acknowledging that the “approve” rating was 65.35 when the article was written, in July. Pray-er Vladimir Ryzhkov, shill for western think-tanks.
I can’t imagine where the Valdai Club would get the idea that the opposition was getting stronger; can you?
In fact, Levada reported at end-October that Putin’s approval rating was unchanged at 67%, rather than sliding as Kirill Rogov and Nikolai Petrov would have you believe. Pretty soon the opposition and its sycophants are going to have to start making the number a different colour, so that they can argue there has been a change which can be interpreted as negative. Something else the article points out is that among those who voted for Putin in March – which group the opposition cannot win without swaying – Putin’s popularity remains at 90%.
The rush on the part of the Anglosophere to discredit video of Sergei Udaltsov discussing support for escalating protest to violence is puzzling, for several reasons. For one, if the Anglosphere had video of Putin ordering police to “disappear” Udaltsov on the occasion of the next demonstration, would the press body challenge it? Muddy the waters with a bunch of unsubstantiated statistics of how many people think the authorities made it up – a position which the Anglosphere reinforces daily? They would not, and you know it – it’d be front-page news from coast to coast and they would just run with it. By the time anyone got around to speculating it might be faked, it would be so firmly implanted in the public consciousness that you couldn’t shift it with a chisel. Need an example? Sure. Putin’s yachts, palaces, huge stolen fortune and penchant for wristwatches that cost a worker’s lifetime salary. No matter how many times this is patiently discredited and it is reestablished that Putin is in fact frugal by comparison with any number of western leaders, every time some fool breaks a story about Putin’s wealth as if it had just been discovered, the entire press is away with it like a pack of hounds.
For another, everything about Sergei Udaltsov shouts that he is a street thug rather than a reasoner; a surly, resentful sociopath who yearns for every confrontation to turn violent and can conceive of no better martyrdom for himself than for him to go down fighting under a hail of blows and kicks. I mentioned earlier the occasion of a recent demonstration which resulted in disappointing turnout, and closed with Udaltsov still doing the caged-animal walk up front and hoarsely rasping into his bullhorn when the audience consisted only of a few sweepers cleaning up the crowd debris. This passed more or less completely without comment in the Anglospheric press. Now, imagine Sergei Udaltsov – rather than the unstable leader of an opposition group – is a ramrod for Nashi. How crazy would Sergei Udaltsov be then? Mad as a hatter, a social hand grenade; and you know this, too.
Is it believable that Sergei Udaltsov would engage in planning violence against the state with an outsider who had access to funding and possibly western support? You tell me.
The Valdai Club, at bottom, is a good idea. Bringing together professionals in various fields from all countries of the world to highlight, capture, debate and resolve Russia’s problems is an initiative the country should welcome, and the regular presence of either the President or the Prime Minister at Valdai gatherings suggests it does. Nobody is suggesting the best way for Russia to solve its problems is to ignore good advice, freely given, when it is offered. But the Valdai Club sticks a grimy thumb in the eye of its own credibility when it ties its development index to partisan politics, and throws its support to the increasingly deluded and fragmented political opposition.