In Memoriam Primakov

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has died. Even knowing that he was 86 years old, it was a bit surprising to read about his death this morning. I remember when Yeltsin appointed Primakov Prime Minister, so that’s how long I’ve been following Russian politics.

Given Primakov’s stature in modern Russian politics (he was still quite active), nearly everybody had a comment or opinion to add. I’ve rounded up a few.

Oleg Kozyrev wrote on his Facebook page that Primakov was “one of the few who dared to criticize Putin’s economic & foreign policy. His death is an absolute loss for Russian politics.”

Vitaly Averin (jokingly?) called Primakov “the most liberal PM in post-Soviet Russia – in the sense that he didn’t do anything (laissez-faire)”.

MP Dmitry Gudkov wrote that Primakov put the economy above politics. He also recalled the legend of Primakov ordering his plane to turn around mid-Atlantic “to protest the bombing of Yugoslavia” [note: do we have confirmation of this, or is it just an urban legend?].

Gudkov continued:

Today Russia lacks politicians like Primakov – moderate, thoughtful, independent, and professional.

As just about everybody was declaring Primakov a statesman, and many bemoaning the fact that he had not replaced Yeltsin in 1999, Vsevolod Chernozub wrote:

I’m sorry, but how can we combine these two statements:
“What a nightmare, a KGB officer was elected president [of Russia]…”
and
“The wise man is gone, what a pity he was not elected president”
It seems that in the hierarchy of the KGB, Putin was just a trifle paunchy, compared with Primakov. Or is more flexible thinking needed?

Several economists commented that Primakov had been a stabilizing figure after the 1998 default.

Vladimir Milov seemed to see Primakov the most clearly, noting that to Primakov image was everything.

Primakov, of course, was an outstanding figure, and played a positive role in the history of our country, but this does not change [anything].

And finally some photos:

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Putin’s Approval Rating

Putin’s approval rating continues to climb. Levada Center announced on Wednesday that it has now reached 89%. As I’ve blogged previously, I am skeptical of these numbers.

The Russian blogosphere reacted with its usual snide remarks, and with jokes about when it would reach 146% (a reference to previous elections where voter turnout reached 146%, and the results were clearly falsified).

But beyond the jokes and comics, one blogger had some serious points to make on the dangers of relying on such polls, and why they are inaccurate. Dmitry Chernishev wrote:

To say that this is a national catastrophe is to say nothing. But it is not because… we have the wrong people. No. Politicians who seriously engage in their own country can not be beyond rating. I’ll try to explain why.

He cites three leaders who lost elections after doing great things for their countries.

First, Churchill lost the 1945 elections shortly after leading the UK to victory in World War 2.

Charles de Gaulle lost the election of 1953 after bringing his country into the club of “Great Powers”.

And finally, Mikhail Saakashvili’s party lost an election after he and his party had “led some incredible reforms” despite expectations to the contrary.

What does this mean, Chernishev asks.

1. Any reformist president is doomed to a decline in his approval ratings. His reforms necessarily lead to dissatisfaction of the population, but these reforms are key to the country’s development.

2. The exit of a president from power shows that the elections were, as far as possible, honest. And it ensures the peaceful change of power in the future.

3. The prohibitively high rating of any president is a diagnosis. This rating indicates that all efforts of the state are instead focused on the preservation of power of this one person.

4. The prohibitively high rating indicates that the country has a strong political censorship, which prevents the creation of any competition to the president.

5. The high rating is not a guarantee of an eternal presidency – [Romania’s] Ceausescu had a rating of 100% a week before the unrest in Timișoara.*

*Note: In December 1989, Timișoara witnessed a series of mass street protests in what was to become the Romanian Revolution of 1989.

Ivanov’s FT Interview

I was planning to mock this interview that Sergei Ivanov gave to FT, but once I read through it a few times, I realised it is more sad than funny. And it does not contain anything really new. The interview swings wildly between victimology, threats, finger-pointing, and condescension.

The interview is meant, I believe, to be a sales pitch for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in Russia. One of Ivanov’s many responsibilities is that of member of the Supervisory Board of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Ivanov claims that FDI has increased 13-fold since 2002. He neglects to mention that according to Russia’s own statistics, FDI is nearly nil. Thus, the desperate sales pitch.

Ivanov does try to sell some ideas they claim they have for the development of Russia’s regions (particularly in Siberia and the Far East). They are not bad ideas per se. A conversation on the subject should certainly take place. Particularly about land ownership, something that has been a problem since the end of the Cold War, and concerned Solzhenitsyn, among others.

But these people have been in power since 1999. Why haven’t they done anything about it? Ivanov, of course, has an excuse. The same trite one that we’ve heard before from this regime, actually. And in the end it comes down to the fact that they’re just victims to the oil curse.

“In the 2000s, when we had very high oil prices, the motivation for carrying out structural reforms and diversify the economy was not very high. Why should you do that, when a golden rain is pouring down on you? That is true everywhere in the world, by the way, not just in Russia.”

The victim mentality is alive and well in this regime. Somehow it is always somebody else’s fault. It doesn’t matter if it is NATO, or the EU, or the US, or some unknown third party. The point is that the regime is never to blame. This despite the fact that they have had what many would consider to be a mandate for pretty much the entire time they’ve been in power (nearly 16 years).

Ivanov also makes the same wild statements about the EU and NATO expansion that have been made previously by this regime. These have been proven to be falsehoods, but if FT did question Ivanov on the subject, it was not made clear in the article.

The condescending attitude Ivanov takes on the subject of Russia’s relations with the West also struck me. Honestly, I’m not sure if it was about gender (the interviewer was female), or Russian chauvinism. I’m not even sure it’s that significant, but it came out in numerous quotes.

I would just again question the effectiveness of these types of interviews. We already know the lies this regime tells. Is it necessary to allow them a platform to repeat them?

P.S. Ivanov also mentions his ‘primary profession’ in passing not once but twice. It’s pretty clear he means his career in the KGB, but it was also a bit amusing given the recent Andrei Illarionov piece on the recent changes Ivanov has made to his biography.

Kudrin’s Proposal

Former Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, made the somewhat unexpected suggestion yesterday that Russia hold early presidential elections (currently scheduled for March 2018). This should not have been so surprising as economist Yevgeny Gontmakher had made the same proposal in Vedomosti a few days earlier. But it raises questions about where the suggestion is really coming from, and why it was proposed.

Some people see it as a continuation of a power struggle between the current Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and Kudrin that began in Autumn 2011 (just after Putin announced his return to the presidency). Kudrin is also trying to sell himself as some kind of reformer who can still somehow manage to turn Russia’s economy around (something I doubt is possible at this point). But frankly I think there is more to it than just Kudrin’s personal ambitions.

Kudrin dropped this bombshell at the beginning of Russia’s answer to Davos, so it could be a way to distract people from the fact that Russia’s economy is not really doing that well, despite claims to the contrary.

But more importantly, when things like this are proposed, they’re usually a trial balloon to gauge reactions. It does appear that there will indeed be early parliamentary elections (originally slated for December 2016, they will be moved forward to September 2016). This is not surprising as Russia’s reserves are estimated to be depleted in Autumn 2016. So an early election for both the executive and legislative branches would not be so far-fetched.

Russia’s bloggers had their own suggestions and questions about the proposal.

Kudrin is somewhat misled. Our Vladimir Vladimirovich’s mandate of trust is much longer than Obama’s. And even that of Ramzan Akhmatovich [Kadyrov]

Alfred Kokh wanted to know what exactly was preventing Putin from starting “a new round” of reforms now?

Stanislav Belkovsky echoed the sentiment saying:

Putin already has a mandate for reform. No one is bothering him. Except for himself. As a man with a deeply conservative psyche, he does not want radical reforms, and fears them. And no early elections… will change the fundamentals of his psychology.

On his Facebook page, Vadim Novikov pointed out:

The idea is based on two premises:

1. Putin wants to implement reforms;

2. He lacks popular support

Which one do you think is the most realistic?

If Putin has an approval rating in the 80th percentile, as Levada claims, how is that not a mandate? What makes a vote necessary? This is the question that Kudrin and Gontmakher need to be asked.

More Fascism in Russia

In an article in Novaya Gazeta published today [ru], Marina Tokarev shares the story of Moscow’s Meyerhold Centre, which recently received a letter from the Prosecutor’s Office, asking for “a written explanation” of their theatre performances.

The request names 12 different plays / operas (including Wagner’s Tannhauser, which recently encountered problems with Russia’s Ministry of Culture [story in English here], and Antony & Cleopatra, among others).

In addition, the letter demands to know “whether there are scenes in the above performances foul language, promoting immoral behaviour.”

Tokarev wrote:

“There is a feeling of a black hole into which all of us are gradually being pulled.”

Sasha Sotnik shared the story on his Facebook page and commented:

People may call me spiteful, petty, and nasty [for saying this]. But it is also true that many artists (actors, directors, producers, playwrights) have long asserted that “politics is not our business, we stay out of politics, we need to save the theatre, we have to feed the actors” and so on.

But, he continues, this incident only confirms “the postulate [of Pericles] that ‘just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics won’t take an interest in you”.

“And now… it is coming for you. But you will continue to shun politics.”

Corruption Under Putin

Levada Center has also recently published a recurring survey on corruption in Russia.

According to the poll taken at the end of May, 37% of respondents said Putin should be held fully responsible for corruption in “upper echelons of power”. Another 43% said they believe the Russian president is at least partially to blame.

42% of those polled said they thought corruption in Russia is impossible to eradicate.

Another 16% said it is difficult for Putin to fight corruption since he “relies on corrupt officials”.

And asked if Putin hinders or indulges the bureaucracy, 64% answered that they thought he keeps them in check.

Or as Nina Khrushcheva calls it:

Putin’s Approval Rating & Other Indicators

According to Levada Center, one of Russia’s main polling agencies, President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating still sits in the 80th percentile, and that number has not changed much since the annexation of Crimea (as can be seen in the chart below).

Putin's Approval Rating

But the poll raises some interesting questions that crop up every time Levada releases their monthly results. How valid is a poll in a country that lacks legitimate leadership alternatives? Can it be relied upon to give an accurate assessment of the populations’ feelings and reactions?

If 86% of Russians “approve” of President Putin, how many are passive in the sentiment? Put another way, how many would take to the streets in support of Putin and his policies without force or inducement? This is the real test. And I suspect the numbers are not that high. Stanislav Belkovsky suggested several months ago that it’s probably about 10% of the population (though 14 million people still seems excessive to me). This is actually more discouraging than encouraging, however. In many ways the passive apathetic majority is more of a problem than the active vocal minority.

Another question Levada asks in their monthly poll is if the respondents believe Russia is heading in the right direction:

Is Russia moving in the right direction

As of May 2015, 60% of Russians claim they think the country is headed in the right direction.

But barring alternatives, what else can they say? The premise of Putin’s rule has always been framed as the choice between chaos with an unknown leader or stability with Putin.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you have a country where approximately 75% of the population is apathetic. If they are not content with the status quo, at least they are not making any move to change their situation. Another 10% (using Belkovsky’s number) would actually take to the streets in support of the current regime. Meanwhile, the so-called opposition cannot even get 1% out onto the streets of Moscow to protest. Where does that leave you?

If nothing else, it makes it difficult to predict future trends.

Vladimir Yakunin

This is something that has been bothering me for awhile, and at first I was hesitant to put it out there. However, a post today about Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin caught my eye, and the phrasing convinced me to write about it.

I am not against anti-corruption efforts. In fact, I applaud them. But this (dare I say obsessive) scrutiny of Yakunin raises some questions.

Why is Yakunin being singled out?

Where is this information coming from?

I don’t know the answers. But the questions bear considering when these reports are released.

It should be noted that Yakunin has been mentioned as a potential successor to Vladimir Putin on numerous occasions over the years. I do not subscribe to this belief myself, but that may play some role here. These are political maneuverings on somebody’s part, and it would be nice if it were acknowledged, rather than the gloating I frequently see when Yakunin’s excesses are revealed.

Sergei Ivanov’s Biography

I used to keep track of the Kremlin’s biographies and changes to them, once upon a time. I started collecting and collating the information in 2004, and you can still see some of my work over on my blog Putinania.

So I was amused when I saw Andrei Illarionov’s post today about how the head of Russia’s Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov’s biography has changed over the recent past. To be fair, Ivanov’s biography has always had some blank spots, and some questionable content. At one point there were claims that he worked in Kenya, Finland, and the UK, but I’ve never seen any exact dates. If anybody knows of them or has more information, feel free to pass it on.

According to Illarionov, Ivanov now claims that he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 15 years, something he had never mentioned before. But this is impossible, Illarionov points out.

“Moreover, as recently as three weeks ago, Ivanov himself insisted that it was served in the KGB, “I [served for]… 25 years in the KGB, which, incidentally, I am proud of.”

This is also not quite true because Ivanov claimed to have left the KGB in 1991, after serving only 15 years. The KGB was shortly thereafter split into different branches, and Ivanov officially served in both (the SVR and the FSB) until 1999. This comes to about 24 years of service (if Ivanov started his career in 1975), so it is not too much of an exaggeration to claim 25 years, but…

That being said, I don’t think you ever truly leave the security services, and Illarionov agrees.

But Illarionov is hung up on Ivanov’s recent claim that he also worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 15 years, as it conflicts with the claim that he worked for the KGB for 25 years. And we can rule out the last 15 years of service since we all know where Ivanov was during that time, he says. So for this to be true, Ivanov would have had to start his career in 1955 (at the age of 2).

I honestly don’t see this as a problem, however. In theory, if Ivanov was working overseas as a KGB spy of some sort during the Soviet Union, then he could potentially been operating undercover as an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a common enough practice even now.

Illarionov concludes by asking why Ivanov needs a new biography, but I would just point out politicians do like to change their stories to relate to an audience or to emphasize a point. Ivanov is just playing the role of politician now. His reasons for that, however, are unclear, and that’s Illarionov’s point.

P.S. If you want some amusing reading in English, read this Ivanov biography:

Sergey Ivanov speaks fluent English and Swedish and has a good aural memory: he is capable of easily memorizing and reproducing voice pitches.

How is that for a skilled spy?

Ukraine IDPs

I decided to go to a couple of press briefings at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center today in Kyiv (thanks to @TetyanaStadnyk for showing me where it was).

I was particularly interested in the status of people who have been displaced by the war here in Ukraine. The United Nations calls these people “Internally Displaced Persons” or IDPs, and says they “are among the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Even if they have fled for similar reasons as refugees (armed conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations), IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government – even though that government might be the cause of their flight. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law.

In Ukraine, this is a problem that has only grown since the war started last year. The UN estimates that by the end of May, Ukraine had approximately 1.3 million people who have been forced to flee their homes, but they acknowledge that “the real figure of IDPs remains unknown and is likely to be higher.”

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has estimates showing numbers a bit higher than the UN’s, but comparable.

At the end of April, UNICEF put the number of children displaced by the war at 152,000.

According to data shared today by the Ukrainian Institute of Research of Extremism, 96% of those children come from the eastern part of Ukraine (the Donbas region), and 4% from Crimea.

I hope to pursue this topic further while I am here in Ukraine, so I will hopefully be posting more in the near future.

In a similar vein:

The Ukraine Crisis Media Center is also initiating a project encouraging Ukraine’s youth in creative writing, journalism, and communication in the face of conflict. You can find more information by following the link below: