Why I Quit Twitter

I’ve been asked by several friends now about my views on the situation in the US. I have lived abroad for the last four years, so I feel like an outsider observer. Let me be clear, I did not vote in this last election. I got a lot of flak for it, but I still refuse to apologize for my decision. There was nothing in Clinton’s past record to recommend her. But Trump’s lack of experience was also worrying.

But what really bothered to me was the fact that the discussion on issues were once again pushed aside in favor of name calling and finger pointing. I think the US system is terribly broken, and needs to be reformed, but neither candidate was offering a way out. This only exacerbated my feeling of apathy. I would now self-describe as “agnostic” when it comes to American politics.

At the same time, I have been driven to quit Twitter. I initially joined the social media platform because I wanted to find others who were similarly interested in politics and foreign policy, especially in relation to Russia, a place and culture that has fascinated me for decades.

But in the past year or so I noticed that people were tribalizing. People had formed groups based on a common set of beliefs and were refusing to engage with others who held differing viewpoints. But worse than this, these groups were ganging up on people who held opposing views. Name-calling, bullying, etc. were taking place. In addition, I was blocked by several people for pointing out facts that did not agree with their agenda. No discussion took place. I just noticed one day that I had been blocked from seeing their tweets.

Far from being a place for discussion and debate that Twitter was initially, it had turned into an unwelcoming, and even sometimes frightening place. And I realized it had become a microcosm of what was happening in society at large. The fragmentation and tribalization of groups who could not see eye to eye. But instead of discussing their differences rationally, they had resorted to name calling and bullying, or just refused to talk to one another.

In addition, I had noticed for about a year or more that I was not getting many responses from people who wanted to discuss issues, but wanted to show off their own knowledge about or hatred of Russia. I laughed about it at first, but after awhile it started to get annoying. I confess I even started muting a few people because of it.

I joined Twitter initially to engage with people who had similar interests. Both to learn from others and to share my own views. And it was great for that. I met a lot of people from around the world who I would not have had I not had the platform. And I am grateful to the people who were willing to engage in discussion and healthy debate.

Review & Forecast

Many Russians are writing reviews of the past year and speculating about what the next year holds. Ivan Preobrazhansky writes:

“Western democracies have rebelled against their elites, but in the East authoritarian regimes have only been strengthened. The main event of 2016, of course, is now considered to be “Brexit”.”

The elite have retained power, he continues, but “…they must now perform “the will of the people”.”

And the same thing happened in the United States. It does not appear that Trump and his staff expected to win. But Americans “tired of the dictates of tolerance, decided otherwise…”

Trump’s foreign policy plans are still mostly a mystery but Preobrazhansky repeats the belief that seems to be held by many in the Russian commentariat: that Trump will not end the sanctions imposed by the US government.

“Moreover, there is no reason to assume that the new president will start his activities with the recognition of Crimea’s accession to Russia.”

Preobrazhansky also believes it unlikely that Trump will overturn the majority of Obama’s own executive orders. “In particular, the ban on the production of hydrocarbons in the Arctic.”

Expectations of Trump are likely over-hyped by both his supporters and his opponents, he alleges. “But this will become clear only in the coming year.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, last year Russia “… was one of the most talked about and influential (at least in words) of the countries in the world. It became clear to Western leaders that they would not succeed in solving the Syrian crisis without the participation of Vladimir Putin.”

Preobrazhansky reminds his readers how at the beginning of 2016, Russia and Turkey could not have been farther apart, as a result of the Russian military aircraft which was shot down by Turkey over a contested area in Syria. “It seemed that the states were on the verge of war.”

But the tense situation suddenly turned for the better after the alleged coup against Turkey’s President Erdogan in July, “…which led to the transformation of the authoritarian regime of Erdogan to [one that is] openly dictatorial, and Moscow is surprising perhaps the closest partner of Ankara. As a result, together with Iran they have divided Syria  into zones of influence, ignoring the US.”

And then, of course, there was the decision by the Obama administration to invoke new sanctions on Russia for the hacking of the DNC. This has only reinforced the stereotype that the Kremlin can “intervene in the internal affairs of any country in the world and influence it according to its own interests…”

So now “the whole world is infected with a virus of general mistrust. Voters do not trust the national ruling elites – and a vivid example of this is not even the Trump victory, but the presidential elections in Austria, where, because of differences in the counting of the votes had to carry out a second round [of voting].”

And even the elites do not trust one another. Europe no longer trusts the US (and even more so after Trump’s election).

“China is on the verge of a military conflict with several of its neighbors, including Japan, and has shown a willingness to take Russia under its wing. And Russia itself has lost the confidence of its only ally – Belarus, given Lukashenko’s [recent] refusal to attend the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union.”

There are only two ways out of this impasse, Preobrazhansky concludes. Either slowly attempt to rebuild confidence in the current system, a process that will take years, or try to chart a new path and “…create a new system of international relations. However, history shows that, as a rule, a radical redivision of the world order needs a great war.”

Russia’s Coming Collapse

Sasha Sotnik posted this commentary on his Facebook page a few weeks ago. At first I was a bit hesitant to post it (I’m not entirely sure why). But I kept thinking about it, and have finally decided to share Sotnik’s comment:

The situation in Russia is moving so fast that I catch myself thinking: even to talk about the future lustration is Manilovism [complacency and daydreaming typified by a character in Gogol’s Dead Souls]

Firstly, Russia awaits the path to the collapse of the dictatorship through either an episode of severe repression, or through a war (foreign or civil), accompanied by the same internal repression;

Secondly, to halt the decline is no longer possible, everything is at the point of no return, we have slipped long ago, and according to the laws (of history & physics) to jump back “from the edge of the abyss”, from which we have fallen down, will not work;

Thirdly, it is inevitable that Russia will disintegrate into several territories. This will happen through the collapse of the economy, when the “Centre” will no longer be needed by the regions, and local princelings themselves will draw the boundaries of their “ancestral lands”, stop paying “tribute” to the federal “horde” and declare independence.

There are already some isolated scenarios: someone installs an authorisation system, another will begin lustration at a local level, followed by a move to civilised forms of government, while others will turn to gangsterism…

Only the present-day Russia in its current geo-political borders will not be touched. Like in the USSR after 1991.

It is sad to write all of this, but what can you do… We all had a hand in it.

Central Bank Scheme

Former Russian Economy Minister Andrei Nechaev wrote on his blog today that more than 2 trillion rubles was printed in 2015. The Central Bank bought this currency from the Russian government.

But the rubles in the economy have at some point reached 2 trillion more because the notes did not stay in the treasury, but went to finance the federal budget deficit. In practice, the money took the form of payments to public procurement, pensions, public sector wages, etc.

The Central Bank’s primary task right now is to keep inflation low. This has been stated quite clearly. But adding 2 trillion rubles to float freely on the market would do the opposite. So, Nechaev says, the Central Bank began “dramatically reducing lending to commercial banks. Basically it affected the most widely used forms of credit – the “weekly repo” operations.”

Nechaev continues:

In the words of the Central Bank chairwoman, the Bank of Russia has consistently reduced the provision of liquidity to the banks in this form. The volume of repo transactions fell from 2.69 trillion rubles in late 2014 to 840 billion rubles at the beginning of 2016 and to 490 billion rubles for mid-February.

But, he says:

Obviously the currency acquired by the Central Bank will eventually be given in some form to the Russian banks and large companies for the settlement of Western loans under the closing capital of Western markets due to sanctions.

The Central Bank is conducting “this elaborate scheme”, Nechaev alleges, for two reasons:

  1. “…the sale of such significant volumes of currency strengthens the exchange rate, and therefore the Ministry of Finance will receive less of the rubles badly needed to carry out budgetary commitments.”
  2. “…in buying currency, the “irresponsible” Russian bankers and businessmen could get it out of Russia, where capital is inconvenient.”

And so the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank have made everything comfortably, relaxed and home-like.

Wriggling Out

Marat Guelman* speculated yesterday about how the Kremlin will attempt to wriggle out of the corner they’ve back themselves into both economically and politically.

It is a very tragic situation, when the powers that be signal their own impotence, but still want to stay in power. What will they say to you now? How will they wriggle out?

1. firstly and most importantly, they will try to separate politics from economics. Krymnash from the sanctions, self-imposed isolation from the newly expensive products [see my post yesterday about how inflation is impacting Russians at the store -ed], world conflict from the ruble.

2. they will say that it is even worse in Ukraine and the rest of the world. It is impossible to explain this to a person who has a difficult life, but it can be proved that it is even worse nearby. Moreover travel will be less.

3. they will frighten people by saying that after them will come somebody even worse. Kadyrov, Motorola [the nickname of so-called pro-Russian rebel leader, Arseny Pavlov]. Then we must also turn Khodorkovsky and Navalny into bogeymen.

4. and it is clear about [the use of] internal and external enemies. It is difficult to make plausible, but they will attempt it.

5. I believe 100% that they will bring in the Russian Orthodox Church. Think more about the eternal soul, and “poverty as a virtue”. They will talk about the advantages of poverty as well as the advantages of a weak ruble.

6. the new pseudo-opposition leader will gather those who were not effected by the first 5 points, and will convert the voices of the disaffected into a loyal political concoction.

What else?

*Guelman left Russia in January 2015, and now resides in Montenegro.

Everything Is Possible

Rustem Adagamov tweeted this post by Dmitry Glukhovsky earlier today and it’s worth taking note of.

“Glokhovsky on how Putin’s propaganda was able to fool Russians faster than Goebbels fooled the Germans.”

Everything Is Possible

I remember two years ago, I loved to speculate: how, I wondered, the German people, who are not only proud of, but boast a complex culture, refined and Western literature, advanced philosophy, humanistic traditions – a great, without flattery, civilization – could in just two decades completely lose control and turn first into a crowd, and then into a flock, to unlearn thinking – willingly, with a passion to unlearn – to believe an antisocial ogre, to make him into their national leader, and to take systematically, and with the German love of order to destroy the blood of other living people?

I was interested not in Hitler, but in ordinary Germans: why good citizens were willing to lose their humanity, why they need to take their neighbors into concentration camps, and why it was so easy to carry their children in empty prams sent from Birkenau.

I tried, but could not figure out what components of the human soul here in answer. My own country also went through totalitarianism, through repression; but in Stalin’s Union, it seems to me, that some other mechanism functioned: there, at the expense of mass and unpredictable repression animal terror was instilled in people, they completely lost the ability to think straight and resist, and humbly waited for whom Moloch [the Canaanite idol to whom children were sacrificed in the Old Testament] would devour next.

And a year ago, it was shown to me how it is. How people who for 20 years, like, live freely, which allows them (for the first time in our thousand-year history) to think freely, and the ability to choose their own faith and ideology, can in a few months slip back not only to the days of the Soviet dictatorship — but further, deeper — into some kind of Middle Ages.

It turns out that all that was needed was the TV to turn the media into a propaganda tool. This was done: simultaneously roughly, primitively, and masterfully. Joseph Goebbels could only have dreamed of such a tool as the modern Russian TV. So what for Goebbels took a decade, we cranked out in a year. The people were ready for this. Ready to believe that we are surrounded by enemies. That they want to break us up into pieces to occupy, colonize, suck our precious oil and our favorite gas. To gobble us up and digest. To finish us, and to raise the Stars and Stripes over the Kremlin.

Why do we believe them, why buy into a sometimes obvious lie? After all, we did not really lose the Cold War. After all, we are not obliged to pay billions in reparations, the US Marines have not been marching triumphantly through Red Square, and nobody has taken Kaliningrad from us. Where did this sense of national humiliation, defeat that is inflated on TV come from?

Of course, it is an empire that is falling apart and has been sinking for 300 years. None of the people who bid farewell to empire find it easy — even the Hungarians still cannot give it up. And yes, it became clear that the whole system of values in which we grew up, the ideology suddenly appeared wrong. But the main thing — the people in the new Russia had no sense of chosenness, uniqueness, majesty, there was no sense of belonging to a power, which is respected and feared throughout the world and that this world is changing.

The Russian has never truly been free: in his personal life, perhaps, and then not always. And he has never been full. And the state has never allowed him to feel self-respect. In all eras, respect is replaced by pride in his country. Based, of course, on propaganda.

And in the past few years, the country has been given no new reasons to be proud, only disdain and doubts. That is why the State celebrates Victory Day (May 9) every year with just pomp and ceremony. There is no more important in the history of modern Russia than the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The myth of the struggle against fascism and the victory over it was the main ideological myth of modern Russia, the main rallying point for the motley, multi-ethnic population of our country.

That’s the whole psychoanalysis.

But is this enough to make 9 out of 10 of my fellow citizens suddenly believe that a million people on Maidan [in Kyiv] — the same people, like every Russian viewer — received a salary from the US State Department. Believe. And believe that in Kiev have come to power real fascists, a cheap popular image from an old movie about the war. Believe in the roughly daubed hysterical propaganda plot structure about the crucifixion of small children by Ukrainian Fascists in Eastern Ukraine.

Believe that Crimea, if it had not joined the Anschluss, the Americans would have taken it away and placed their 6th fleet in Holy Sevastopol. Even my educated friend believe it! I tell them, nobody wants Sevastopol! Turkey, whose army is not inferior to the Russian army, has been a member of NATO for half a century, and completely controls and Bosporus and Dardanelles. Nobody needed Crimea, but Putin – to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO! They do not hear, they do not understand, they do not believe. They do not even want to think that this Russia invaded the Donbass. To say it out loud is to be called a traitor. No, it is Ukrainian fascists on a punitive operation against the Donbass militias. They needed a mythology about the Great Patriotic War….

And it is not getting better: now Nemtsov is murdered, and apparently, the TV, out of respect for the deceased cooled down a bit, and did not mock his corpse; but read the internet — and there, wound up, disturbed, stranded propagandised citizens, shouting, “for a dog — a dog’s death!”

And the probably ten percent, who from the beginning have seen in all the Crimean and Donbass campaigns the lies about the continuation of the Great Patriotic war, the inflating of anti-Western hysteria, — the pragmatic calculation, the cold-blooded manipulation of a stupefied population — now they are afraid. They say they are not afraid, and join tens of thousands marching in central Moscow — but they are afraid, of course.

If they managed to murder Nemtsov — then, probably, they can kill anybody. Whoever it was. And now — after Crimea, after Donbass, after Nemtsov — anything can happen. And the camps, and repression, and the strollers of Birkenau. Somehow it turns out that people quietly go along with it. And it is not only the Germans who are capable of it, we are as well, apparently. I do not want to believe it. I would like to reassure myself: this is panic, this is paranoia. But Germany, I think, had its own 10 percent who did not vote, did not march, did not yell — and they all too did not want to believe it was possible.

It appeared possible. And now, it seems, everything is possible.