Ivan Golunov, Jan Kuciak, and the politics of the last straw (or the last straws…)

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I’m always wary of grand claims that “everything has suddenly changed”, not least because specific events tend rather to be the dots on the graph that show us wider processes and trends rather than true historical junctures in their own right. But I have just got back from Slovakia, where the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírováled to the downfall of a government and — arguably — the political backlash against a cronyist status quo that saw the rise of the brand-new Progressive Slovakia party, and the election of their presidential candidate, Zuzana Čaputová. People knew that their politics were corrupt, that cosy deals between businesspeople, gangsters are officials were commonplace, and that it was not necessarily safe to probe too deeply into them. The 27-year-old Kuciak did, though, and when he died, it somehow catalysed a long-building public anger at the status quo. Somehow, this felt different, and not just within Slovakia’s relatively small and tightly-knit political and media classes.

So too the arrest of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov feels as if may be another of these catalytic moments. He dug a little too deeply into too many corrupt deals in Moscow, and the shabby and pretty transparent frame-up and subsequent beating at the hands of the police has become a cause celebre. People have queued up to protest ever since the arrests, cultural figures are openly criticising the case, and three heavyweight newspapers – Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant – are all running covers tomorrow that say “We are Ivan Golunov.”

On the one hand, it is easy to be a little skeptical. After all, such cases happen all the time in Russia, alas — but not usually in Moscow. That people are still willing to be investigative journalists in the provinces, a career every bit as safe and comfortable as being a war correspondent, continues to inspire and amaze me. Their cases fail to make the same splash, though, even when they lead to murder, not mishandling. It would be easy to snark, to say that Golunov’s status as a member of the Muscovite media family is what made this one prominent, that it is his friends and colleagues who have made this such a big deal — or those who fear they might be next. But so what? It is not just journalists who are protesting, and there is often a degree of arbitrariness as to which stories catch the public attention and which do not. Several people in Slovakia, after all, said that Kuciak’s age was a crucial issue, that even for members of the elite they could feel that it could have been one of their children.

On the other, it is easy to get carried away, to see this as some tipping point, the beginning of the end for a corrupt system. Obviously, we’ll have to see, as the truth of the matter is that we rarely spot those pivotal moments at the time. The scale of the protests and the way these newspaper have coordinated their very public responses are striking, to be sure, but I don’t think this is the cause of some sea change. Rather — and actually I think this is a more optimistic perspective — I think it is a symptom.

I faced some pushback last week when, in response to a story about Levada polling that showed growing willingness to join protests, I suggested that even though many of the issues ostensibly causing them were very specific and local, this should be seen as demonstrating a shift in attitudes. Ultimately, however much even the protesters might try to deny it, everything is political.

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The social contract of late Putinism allows a degree of protest, activism, even democracy — as long as it does not seem to be a threat to the core interests of the state and Putin and his close cronies personally. Civil society, even politics, exist, but the etiquette is to protect that there is not a direct connection between the irritants, whether road tolling, environmental damage, or whatever, and the overall political situation. Of course, though, everyone knows there is; everyone understands that the fundamental root causes are corruption, inefficiency, clientelism and unresponsiveness within the ruling elite.

The Kremlin presumably assumes that, like the fake party politics of the Zyuganov ‘n’ Zhirinovsky circus, this bleeds off pressure and helps maintain the status quo. But a key difference is that these protests are generated from below, not choreographed from above. Little by little, they create the organisational habits, structures and skills of protest, and also a culture of calling power to account. When an especially egregious case such as Golunov’s comes along, one that has the right characteristics — it’s in Moscow, it’s patently unfair, it’s close to the heart of the mobilising media, and it fits general assumptions about how “they” punish “us” — then not only does it push these processes forward a little, but we get to see them at work.

It is not likely to be the last straw, by any means. In Slovakia’s case, after all, there was a free media and genuine democracy not only to turn popular dissatisfaction into political change, but also to help encourage people that such an outcome was possible and worth fighting for. But it may prove to have been one of them.

Mueller, Putin, Trump, and the Russian ‘adhocracy’

Picture1For some time now I have been pushing the notion that Putin’s Russia is best understood as an ‘adhocracy’, which I define in my ECFR report Controlling Chaos as a system

in which the true elite is defined by service to the needs of the Kremlin rather than any specific institutional or social identity. They may be spies, or diplomats, journalists, politicians, or millionaires; essentially they are all ‘political entrepreneurs’ who both seek to serve the Kremlin or are required to do so, often regardless of their formal role.

The activities of the ‘adhocrats,’ and those of the myriad lesser ‘political entrepreneurs‘ who aspire to that role, are occasionally directly tasked by the Kremlin, sometimes indirectly tasked through hints, nods and winks, and often their own initiatives, acting in ways that they hope will please the boss(es). I talk about this system more fully in my new book, We Need To Talk About Putin.

In this context, an initial quick skim of the ‘Mueller Report’ is gratifyingly supportive of this notion. Of course, the report does highlight cases of clear, direct, Russian government action, notably the GRU’s hack-and-leak operation. Far more frequent, though, are indications of a Kremlin that not only did not want or expect Trump to become president (in my opinion the Russians were convinced Clinton would win and were simply trying to disrupt her assumed presidency, fearing she would embark upon a concerted campaign against them), was if anything worried about its lack of traction with the campaign, and relied on the actions of sundry political entrepreneurs.

Consider, for example, what Petr Aven, head of Alfa-Bank, said:

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Later

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In other words, the Kremlin was disconnected from the campaign, and felt that this was a concern. Figures such as Aven saw this as both a threat to their own interests, and also an implicit instruction from the Kremlin, and acted accordingly.

So all kinds of different actors set out to use whatever opportunities they had to try and open lines of communication, from the lawyer Veselnitskaya, through to Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev:

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But here’s the thing: not only was it in the direct interests of these individuals to try and build bridges with presidential contender and then the transition team of the president elect, it was also entirely normal. All kinds of countries, businesses and interests were doing the same, from the Saudis and Emiratis to Marine Le Pen. If anything, the evidence of the report – and of subsequent developments, in which once one strips away Trump’s bizarrely enthusiastic rhetoric about Putin, one can see that US policy towards Russia is tougher than at any point since 1991 – is of a Kremlin as bewildered by the prospect of the new presidency as anyone else, and thus interested to see if any of its adhocrats could get a meaningful line into the campaign and transition teams. And, despite various meetings and overtures, the answer is that they did not.

So, please, put away those onion-dome-on-the-White-House graphics, abandon those excitable claims of Trump as a Russian agent and the Trump Tower Moscow project as anything but the overheated hype and hopes of some grifters who didn’t understand how modern Russia works. Trump and his circle can be damned in all kinds of ways, from obstruction of justice to incompetence. But this is an American story and sin, not a Russian import.

 

New Book (3): Russian Political War: moving beyond the hybrid

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The third of my crop of books out this month is Russian Political War: moving beyond the hybrid from Routledge, a study of what I think we should be talking about instead of ‘hybrid war’ (let alone the mythical ‘Gerasimov Doctrine‘). It builds off my earlier report, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? to argue that while the Russian military – like everyone else – is looking at the opportunities in non-kinetic means to prepare the battlefield (after all, has any war not been ‘hybrid’?), the real challenge the West faces is different. The current campaign being waged against the West is not a preparation for eventual military conflict, but rather a wholly non-military campaign that echoes ‘political war’ as described by George Kennan at the start of the Cold War, and which has its spiritual home and command and control centre within the Presidential Administration and Russia’s civilian national security elites.

Russia: an increasingly ‘normal’ country…with an abnormal regime

One of my regrets of 2017 was, for reasons beyond my control, not getting to speak at the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg. I confess I am not the greatest fan of Yeltsin-the-Man – for all his successes bringing down the USSR and crushing some of its more unpleasant remnants, he was a destroyer rather than a creator, and as Tony Wood trenchantly demonstrates in his Russia Without Putin, in many ways Putin is an heir not just to the failures of the 1990s but also the policies. Nonetheless, the Yeltsin Centre appears committed to the best ideals of Yeltsin-the-Symbol in hosting a series of very interesting lectures, especially on the social and political processes shaping Russia and the world.

Recently the indefatigable Ekaterina Schulmann – whom every serious Russia-watcher should follow – delivered a fascinating lecture on the evolution of Russian society, and fortunately Znak has published a detailed summary of her comments. There is much in the lecture to explore and enjoy, and I will not try and do it full justice. Rather, what I want to focus on is her core point, that especially since 2014, Russia has been moving towards what Westerners might consider ‘normalcy,’ with less of the atomisation, survivalism and dependence on state institutions that has so consistently dogged Russian politics and society. In terms of the global values map reproduced below, the country is slowly but surely moving to the right.

I think she is absolutely correct, and one of the – many, many – tragedies of the current geopolitical struggle between the Kremlin and the West is that hysteria and paranoia, on both sides, have obscured all the reasons to be cheerful. The corollary that Schulmann raises is that Russia doesn’t need (indeed, should avoid) some new revolution. Ket me reproduce, in my clumsy translation (if in doubt, go to the original), some of her closing paragraphs:

We do not need to make a new revolution to improve our lives. We have a really low quality of public administration, but it is sub-standard relative to our level of social development. We are at heart a healthy society. We are an urban country: 74.4% of our fellow citizens live in cities. Our literacy rate is 99%, and more than half of the population has a higher than average education. In this sense, we are at the level of Israel and Canada. Most of our fellow citizens are not engaged in physical labour. We even have a falling prison population. We could have a political system which suits us more, life could be much better without any revolutionary upheavals. The authorities should meet society’s needs, and the society does not need mass repressions, control over public space, censorship, or bans on meetings – none of this is needed. This is just unnecessary.

In fact, the simple observance of the Constitution and the rolling back of the repressive measures of 2012-14 will give us, without any grand struggles and huge sacrifices, a much more responsive political system. People want to be listened to, people want political participation and competition. They want to go to rallies and not get their skulls cracked by the National Guard, they want to go to vote and see candidates who represent them on the ballots. People want a party system that meets their needs, people want a public sphere, in which they can talk about what matters to them, not the ‘crimes of the Kyiv junta’ committed some year or other.

We are closer to normal than we ourselves think. Our ideas about fears of a disastrous future are based on nothing. Apocalyptic expectations, which, of course, are also pushed by the state-run media, do not conform to reality. It does not mean from this that nothing bad could happen to us. It could – and that would be even more painful, because then there would have been no rhyme or reason, it would just have come out of the blue, and for nothing. It could have been different and it could have been much better.

Of course, saying Russia ‘just’ needs the Constitution upheld and Putin’s recent repressive counter-proto-revolutionary measures rolled back is a little like saying the economy ‘just’ needs rule of law and an end to corruption – easy to say, not so easy to do. But this is an absolutely crucial point. For all the arbitrary authoritarianism and capricious kleptocracy of the Putin years, this has coexisted with a too-often-unsung process of social development, even a still-unfinished but not insignificant degree of legalism. It may take years, it may take political generations, but the foundations for a process of democratisation, liberalisation, normalisation, Westernisation, whatever one wants to call it, are there.

And this is, of course, a challenge for the Kremlin and the upper levels of the elite whose power and privilege depends upon it. While he may not – probably does not – think of it in these terms, much of what Putin does these days is, if not to reverse this process, to obscure it. The increasingly paranoid quest for fifth, sixth (seventh?) columnists at home, the rabid and xenophobic propaganda too visible on state TV, the presentation of the world as a hostile place, committed to keeping Russia bound and subordinated, all of these are distractions. But the good news is that the very reason why the volume and pitch of these distractions is getting greater and greater is that it has at best limited impact. Russians are still organising and forming bonds of social cohesion, they are supplementing the TV’s vision of the world with one they gather on the internet or through personal experience, they pin on a St George’s ribbon on Victory Day but have no willingness to see blood and treasure expended in Syria, Venezuela and, probably, the Donbas.

A normal society and an abnormal regime. For now, the latter gets the airtime, but in the long term, the former will win out.

 

 

Masha and the Bear are not coming to invade your homeland

On Guard For The Defence Of The Motherland!

Time for a Saturday spleen-venting. It’s always dangerous to predict that we’ve reached “peak” anything, because life will no doubt find a way to prove you wrong. But I truly with that a story in today’s Times could turn out to be peak…I don’t even know quite what to call it…cliché Russophobia.

The target of my ire is a short article, ‘Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics,’ which uncritically relays allegations that the Russian animated cartoon Masha and the Bear is “a ‘soft propaganda’ tool for the Kremlin” because “the Bear symbolised Russia and was designed to replace a negative image of the country with a positive one in children’s minds.” Worse yet, “in one episode, Masha, wearing a Soviet border guard’s cap, patrols the Bear’s garden and chases out a hare that tries to steal carrots. Critics have seen this as a statement about Russia’s defence of its borders.” One Prof. Glees, of the University of Buckingham, is trotted out to deliver the punchline that “Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her slight weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.”

Well, actually it is pretty damn far fetched to see Putin in a little girl who cries when she doesn’t get what she wants and gets her pig to dress up like a baby. Even more so that the Kremlin would want that to be how people think of Putin. Needless to say, the only contrary view in the article is a note in the last paragraph that “Russia’s state media has ridiculed the concerns.”

For a start, such a take omits to consider that the cartoon series, which admittedly began in 2009, under Putin, is based on a long cycle of oral folk stories predating the 1990s. It would be a little like accusing Fawlty Towers as being pro-Brexit, because the representation of the incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel was a call for Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’…forty years later. Or perhaps that Bob the Builder, with its distinct absence of Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers, is likewise Brexit-Isolationist brain washing…

This is just one of a steady trickle of bizarre stories relating to Russia’s Machiavellian genius in weaponising everything. Remember those football hooligans who were somehow part of Putin’s ‘hybrid war’? Of course Russia is launching a active measures campaign against the West, but shoddy pieces like this that suggest that anything demonstrating that the Russians themselves are human beings like us, that their kids watch TV cartoons like us, that their hot-headed young men can get violent in support of their teams and in mutual displays of machismo like ours, that they live and love, dream and die like us, is somehow ‘soft propaganda,’ is depressing to the nth degree.

It’s also a problem. Why?

  1. It’s stupid. Just that; this is a desperate and silly idea that shouldn’t be reported except as such. And if it is going to be written about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to find some kind of alternative take – that’s just proper journalism, no? (By contrast, The Herald had earlier ran a much funnier but also more balanced take.)
  2. It devalues the real propaganda. Of course Russia is maintaining a soft power campaign to try and influence foreign perceptions, ranging from presenting Putin as some kind of bare-chested champion of traditional values, to suggesting that the Europeans are being coerced into sanctions and other anti-Kremlin moves by an overweening America. Just as to defend all is to defend nothing, so too to see everything coming from Russia as propaganda is to make it impossible to make a serious case when it really is.
  3. It devalues us. When did it become necessary to dehumanise the Russians, to have to pretend that everything in and from Russia is evil, in order to critique and resist Putin’s regime? First of all, this – I would say – flies in the face of our own liberal world view.
  4. It helps Putin. Secondly, it is bad politics, it plays to Putin’s own legitimating narrative, that the West hates Russia and Russians, and that is why they need a strong state and a strong leader.

 

GRU (GU) facing a little purge? If so, it’s not to spy less, but spy better

GRUlogo2As is inevitable, in the wake of the Dutch hacking bust, the US DOJ indictment, and Bellingcat’s claim that the second member of the Skripal hit team was a naval doctor turned spook, Alexander Mishkin, that there is talk of Putin’s displeasure, of GRU* director Gen. Korobov being on medical leave after being hauled over the coals, of heads about to roll. That may be, although so far we really only have one source, and that being one bankrolled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has his own axes to grind. But it’s not at all implausible given not just that several mission have failed of late, but that there has also been evidence of sloppy tradecraft. However, two points need to be made:

  1. Let’s not overplay the sloppiness. Sure, in hindsight it is always easy to see what was done wrong, just like every inquest after every tragedy, disaster or intelligence failure concludes that they were avoidable. That’s like saying every student could have passed an exam, if they had given the right answers: true but meaningless. Every service makes mistakes, and the GRU has, and if – as the Russians are – you’re operating at flat-out tempo, you’re going to make even more mistakes. Yes, there was some clearly sloppy tradecraft (though still the revelation of 305 GRU officers’ details in Moscow because they registered their cars at their unit’s address was arguably the biggest such breach), but keep it in perspective.
  2. And let’s not overplay any ‘purge.’ There is no evidence the GRU has been operating beyond Kremlin orders, none of the kind of paralysis that, for example, followed the Nemtsov murder. If Putin is showing his anger, it is not because they are spying and hacking and killing, but because they are not doing it well enough. Any purge would be for political purposes (to help distance the Kremlin from these operations) and also to encourage greater professionalism.

*Yes, I know that since 2010 it’s technically the GU, but everyone, even in the Russian military, still calls it GRU. It’s one of those MI6/SIS things.

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