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June 01, 2017

McCarthyism — Then and Now

Writing about web page https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2017/05/23/there-remains-no-evidence-of-trump-russia-collusion/

On Forbes on 23 May, my co-author Paul Gregory worries about America's risk of a new McCarthyism. He warns:

Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the army in the McCarthy-Army hearings brought the McCarthy Era to an end by asking McCarthy, who had gratuitously ruined the reputation of a young colleague: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” We are beginning to see the use of these guilt-by-association practices.

In picking up this theme, Paul echoed an exchange between US President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the spring. As the controversy over his campaign links with Russia intensified, on 3 March 2017 (at 2:38AM) Trump tweeted that leaks of information were turning into:

a total "witch hunt"!

Lavrov adopted and extended Trump's metaphor later the same day:

I can refer to a quote spread in the media today: all of this looks very much like a witch hunt or the days of McCarthyism, which we long thought have passed in the US, a civilized country.

And the following day, Trump returned the compliment:

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

What is McCarthyism? For readers who are not sure what that's all about, Senator Joseph McCarthy was Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1944 to his death in 1957. He played the leading role in a postwar search for undercover communists and Soviet agents in US public life. With or without reasonable cause, this search placed tens of thousands of people under suspicion, many of whom lost their jobs and careers, and some of whom were eventually imprisoned on criminal charges.

Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as:

the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

So, that's McCarthyism. Now for the parallel. Those who raise fears of a new McCarthyism suggest that we should compare today's beleaguered Trump campaign and White House officials to McCarthy's victims after the war. How well does that hold up? The comparison is reasonable up to a point. The chief similarity is the fevered atmosphere of suspicion and finger-pointing, inflamed by a widespread belief that America's public life has been penetrated by hidden enemies, who now lurk just beneath the surface of things.

On Vox on 18 May, Zack Beauchamp noted the spread of fake news about the Trump campaign and presidency, the Congress, and Russia connections:

President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.

These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.

That same evening, my own Facebook feed provided a near-perfect illustration. The evening's news was that investigations into the Trump campaign's Russia links were homing in on a "current White House official" as a "significant person of interest." But who would that be? Nobody knew. I came across some comments by people, not my friends, or even friends of friends, just ordinary, good-hearted, liberal-minded Americans, whom I'll call A, B, and C:

A. Bannon I hope

B. Nope. He's not important. It's Kushner.

A. I wish it could be Pence just to get him out of the picture. So that makes sense why he got so close to top.

C. Please oh please oh please be Jared.

What struck me was not just how interested we have become in the hidden workings of the White House. It was more than that; it was the hunger and thirst for one or another hate figure to be found out for what, in our imagination, they really are -- or what we need them to turn out to be, if the hatred is to be justified.

Common to the new and old McCarthyisms is the burning desire of many to see proven what they feel they already know, in the absence of any hard evidence, to be true. We've made up our minds about Trump and his circle, and what sort of people they are. All we need is the facts that confirm it.

That is not all, however.

There is a deeper point that is buried in the history of the old McCarthyism, a problem that those who warn of the new McCarthyism appear to forget. They hold, and I agree, 100 per cent, that McCarthy and his supporters did despicable things. The McCarthyites ruined the lives of many people who had done nothing wrong. They injected a poison into American political life that persists to the present day.

But there is more. The suspicions that fuelled McCarthyism were not unfounded in fact. McCarthyism was not about nothing. And McCarthyism, in its time, was not technically a witch hunt, although I understand most of its victims felt it like that. For in fact witches do not exist, whereas the traitors that McCarthy hunted in his blind, destructive way, really existed.

Since the end of the Cold War, historians have been able to reconstruct the deep history of which McCarthyism was an evil outgrowth. During the 1930s and 1940s, particularly during World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied, and so before the Cold War began, the American government was penetrated by hundreds of Soviet spies and undercover agents. It was easy for this to come about because many educated Americans had a spark of sympathy for communism, which made them susceptible to Stalin's fake news about the Soviet Union, and also because America at that time lacked the traditions and institutions of counter-intelligence.

By the late 1940s, by means of partial decryption of Soviet diplomatic cables, the FBI knew of the existence of up to a couple of hundred Soviet agents in and around a variety of government departments and projects, including the Manhattan Project. But the FBI mostly did not know who these agents were. This was because the agents' identities were protected by cover names, which the FBI could not crack except by good luck, which did come around occasionally. Meanwhile, the FBI could only protect its limited capacity to decode the Soviet signals by hiding the authoritative source of its suspicions.

Beneath the surface of the McCarthyite search for traitors, in other words, lay two things. First was a pattern of covert collusion by American citizens with the Soviet Union, a country that was operating an intelligence assault on its wartime ally consistent with a state of undeclared war between them. Second was an investigation into them that could not be completed and would remain unfinished and undisclosed for half a century. It was in this context that public suspicion and the desire to expose traitors took hold, with the destructive results that we know.

There are three clear lessons for today.

First, justice is not served when guilt is determined in advance of the facts, or when evidence is sought only to confirm prior beliefs. That is why we should worry about a new McCarthyism.

Second, calling it McCarthyism doesn't mean there is nothing there. The allegations of underhand dealing between the Trump campaign and Russia need to be substantiated or cleared out of the way, based on evidence.

Third, nothing will fuel popular suspicion more than an unfinished investigation. The investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 US presidential election needs to be seen through to the end.


March 11, 2016

Whatever is Abnormal is Suspicious

Writing about web page http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2016/03/china-is-building-a-big-data-plaform-for-precrime/

China is investing heavily in its capacity to monitor and evaluate the attitudes and behaviour of the population. On 14 June 2014 the State Council issued a Notice concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System. The plan envisages that by 2020 every adult Chinese citizen will have a social credit rating.

In a market economy, a person's credit is based on the record of what you earn, spend, borrow, and repay. You gain credit by demonstrating that you can handle money within the law and by honouring your debts. In China, "social credit" is partly financial, but it's also cultural and political. Social credit is gained, not just by handling money honestly and non-corruptly, but also, on a reasonable interpretation of the official language, by knowing the right people and showing the right attitudes in your social and political behaviour.

In other words, just as you can lose financial credit by breaking money rules, you will lose social credit by knowing the wrong people and saying the wrong things. And these things will interact, so that if you know the wrong people or say the wrong things you will put at risk your ability to borrow and to find responsible employment.

What's it all about? Based on its official motivation, the programme

uses encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.

Thus, it's explicit that social credit is an incentive mechanism aimed at behaviour change at the level of the population. Every single adult must must understand the norms that China's ruling communist party sets for personal behaviour in economic, cultural, and political life. Break those norms and you lose trust. Lose trust, and there wil be personal consequences. No one will be beyond the system.

Communist regimes have always aimed to classify their subjects for political reliability, but classification was usually crude and error-prone. Stalin's "usual suspects," (described in my new book One Day We Will Live Without Fear) were anyone who from a non-proletarian background, anyone educated under the old regime, anyone of foreign origin or experience of life abroad, anyone with religious beliefs, and so forth. In Mao's China people were classified into "red" and "black."

What the Chinese authorities have in mind today is a classification that is more sophisticated in every way: multi-dimensional, continuously calibrated, and above all comprehensive.

It's not hard to see the benefit for the party leadership. The party authorizes the norms that you should follow, but enforcing those norms throughout society is an unremitting slog. Through comprehensive "social credit" rating of the population, based on big data, the rulers gain a system that sets up clear incentives for every single citizen to conform in every aspect of their lives. If you have the wrong friends or you're indiscreet on social media, you lose the promotion or you are denied the loan you hoped for. So most people will be persuaded to conform.

Plus, the system will also identify the minority that isn't persuaded, and so resists the official incentives, and it marks them out as security risks.

Recently my attention was grabbed by the technology website Ars Technica discussing China's investments in big data collection such as CCTV:

The authorities are watching for deviations from the norm that might indicate someone is involved in suspicious activity (my emphasis).

I knew I had seen this somewhere before. So I looked for it, and here's what I found:

Our communists should be concerned every day to study and know more deeply processes that are essentially anomalous, that is, incorrect, deviating from the general rule of processes and phenomena, and in a timely way to obtain alerts leading to the exposure of persons intending to carry out hostile actions that can lead to serious consequences (my emphasis again).

This was nearly fifty years ago: on 24 April 1968, Lt. Col. Matulionis, an officer of the Soviet Lithuania KGB, was speaking to a meeting on counter-intelligence priorities of the day. (The documentary record is held on microfilm by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, where I consulted it.)

Communism in Europe and China had common roots. After that, they went different ways. China today looks very different from the Soviet Union. But in respect of what makes a security risk, China's secret policemen have retained exactly the same idea as the Soviet KGB. An ordered society has normal processes. Good citizens follow those norms. When social norms are disrupted, the result is "anomalous, that is, incorrect."

That's where the secret policeman steps in. What is anomalous is incorrect. It arouses suspicion of a crime, and what is suspicious must be investigated for evidence. Who is behind this, and is the hand of the enemy at work?


February 28, 2016

First, Suspect Your Friends

Writing about web page http://www.amazon.co.uk/One-Will-Live-Without-Fear/dp/0817919147/

In 1983 Sharon Tennison, a US citizen, launched the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an NGO dedicated to improving US-Soviet relations from below. Her work is now in its fourth decade. In support of that work she has spoken up for more understanding of Russia in the West. Recently she has expressed sympathy for President Putin, and criticism of US and NATO policies towards Russia.

On a recent visit to Volgograd, as reported in Russian media and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Sharon Tennison and her American interpreter were arrested. They were taken to court and fined for visa violations because, although travelling as tourists, in Volgograd they met with local citizens and discussed relaunching an NGO programme. Pro-government media commentators went further than the court. They described the two Americans as agents of the US state department, and promoters of Western values.

When authoritarian regimes behave like this, many Westerners are baffled. The Russian government faces so many hostile critics abroad; why does it attack its friends at home? What explanation can there be, other than irrationality and paranoia? I am reminded of the puzzlement of Western audiences in the 1930s when, facing active threats from Germany and Japan, Stalin chose to purge his closest associates, sending many to the execution cellar as they protested their loyalty.

In the first chapter of my new book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, released today on Amazon UK, I address this and related puzzles. The puzzle originates in what the political scientist Ronald Wintrobe called “the dictator’s dilemma”: the more feared is the ruler, the harder it is for him to discover his subjects’ true loyalties.

(My economist colleagues will recognize this as an extreme case of what Timur Kuran described as “preference falsification”: sometimes people acquire incentives to conform with others; regardless of their true loyalties, they cheer with the crowd, or remain silent, hiding any inner reservations. An authoritarian regime like Putin’s provides an extreme case because preference falsification can be found in many contexts, including open, democratic societies. If you are on facebook or twitter, ask how many times you have bitten your tongue rather than enter a controversy and say what you really think. And that is when retribution will merely take the form of a bit of trolling and a few harsh words. The problem becomes more acute, however, when the dictator is listening in, so that a dissenting expression can have real consequences: loss of work, of passport, of liberty, even of life. Then fear spreads.)

For the ruler who inspires dread, the problem is to tell real friends from real enemies. The real enemies have gone under cover. In fact, what is the best cover for an enemy? It is to look like a friend.

In turn the ruler who wants to preserve his power must follow the implications. First, he needs agents who will go under cover to search out the hidden enemies: a secret police. Second, where should the secret police focus? This is a more difficult question, because everyone is a suspect. It suggests an impossible task. The task is made easier, however, by various rules of thumb (in my book there are seven of them). A reasonably obvious rule is to suspect anyone who has had to make special efforts to overcome their past associations or social origins so as to fit in.

Examples abound. Depending on the time and place, the secret police might focus on former heretics who recant, former aristocrats who throw in their lot with the lower orders, Jews who assimilate, abandoning their religion and foreign-sounding names, or anyone who has wormed their way into a confidential relationship with the ruler.

As for Sharon Tennison, she is a foreigner, an American who has spent her life promoting international cultural and friendship exchanges with the people of Russia. For her, the secret policeman’s questions follow naturally. Why does she want to be a friend? Who is behind her, and who is paying her way? On whose authority is she building networks of influence that transcend international frontiers? What is she really doing when she meets with Russians behind closed doors and tries to win their trust? These questions are not irrational or paranoid. They are a rational response to the dictator’s dilemma, which is that your bitterest enemy will try to look like your closest friend.

The reader will understand that I see a parallel with Russia today in the Soviet times that I have written about in my book. The sceptic will press the question: Is Russia today really like the old Soviet Union? Yes and no. The answer is partly “no”: Russia is not a totalitarian society in which the state aspires to monopolize everything. As I wrote just over a year ago:

Even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union … Russians in 2015 lead very different lives from Soviet citizens in 1985. They are richer, live longer, are able to visit, study, phone, and write abroad. Even today they are relatively free to search for and find information and discuss it among themselves.

In those ways Russia today is not so like the Soviet Union. But in other ways the answer is also “yes.” For a start, there is a direct line from the Soviet secret police to Russia’s rulers today, and notoriously to President Putin in person.

There are other similarities too. In Russia today there is rule by decree, to which the Parliament and the courts submit passively, not rule by law, contested in elections and applied by independent courts. In Russia today government is secretive and unaccountable; the regime clings to power and shuts down opposition. In Russia today, to be economically privileged is to be politically privileged, and conversely, not in an approximate, average sort of way, as in Western Europe or North America, but in a strictly deterministic one-to-one relationship: in Russia, lose one, and you will lose the other.

Finally, in Russia today there is increasing fear of the consequences of speaking out. Public opinion is chilled by the concerted abuse of oppositionists and the murder of outspoken reporters and leading critics. The consequences are pervasive. A recent Levada Centre opinion survey found that one quarter of 1,603 Russians surveyed (26 per cent) agreed that they were afraid to give truthful answers to opinion pollsters about the conduct of national affairs (23 percent felt inhibited among colleagues and 17 per cent even in the family).

I am not aware of comparable data from any other time or place so it is hard to set the figure of one quarter in any kind of context. But below this headline figure the Levada Centre survey provided some critical detail. When asked about other people (“Do you agree that most Russians willingly give their opinions in surveys?”) the same survey divided respondents into self-confessed regime supporters and critics. Amongst the small number of open critics the proportion answering “No” was just 22 percent. Among the supporters, it went up to 34 percent. Thus, the chilling atmosphere is felt more strongly by the regime’s apparent supporters than by its critics.

The story of Sharon Tennison illustrates one of the lessons of my book: the distrust and suspicion that characterize authoritarian regimes flow from the top, because the ruler must first of all suspect those who would like to be his friends.

About my book

One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State, by Mark Harrison, published by The Hoover Institution Press, is released in Europe on 28 Feb 2016.

What was life in the Soviet Union really like? Through a series of true stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear describes what people's day-to-day life was like under the regime of the Soviet police state. Drawing on events from the 1930s through the 1970s, Mark Harrison shows how, by accident or design, people became entangled in the workings of Soviet rule. The author outlines the seven principles on which that police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and illustrates them throughout the book. Well-known people appear in the stories, but the central characters are those who will have been remembered only within their families: a budding artist, an engineer, a pensioner, a government office worker, a teacher, a group of tourists. Those tales, based on historical records in the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, shine a light on the many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life.

If you would like to read an excerpt from my book, part of Chapter 1, “The Mill,” is now available online as Enemy of the State.

For those with a special interest in scholarly aspects such as source criticism, my book has an Afterword, “Fact and Fantasy in Soviet Records,” available as a CAGE working paper.


February 02, 2016

The KGB Gave my Book its Title

Writing about web page http://www.amazon.com/One-Will-Live-Without-Fear/dp/0817919147/

My book One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State is published today in the US. It will be available in Europe from February 29. This is the story behind the title of the last chapter of my book, which I also used as the title of the book as a whole.

It’s 1958. David is chatting to his friend. Their subject is David’s dream, which is to emigrate. He’s a Jew, living in Vilnius, the capital of Soviet Lithuania. He was once a Polish citizen, born on territory that was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1939 when Stalin and Hitler split Poland between them. Suddenly, David was a Soviet citizen. In World War II he fought in the Red Army. After the war he settled in Vilnius, got married, and made a family.

In the 1950s there was a short window when the Soviet authorities allowed people like David, born Polish, to leave for Poland if they wished. His younger sister, Leila, left for Poland the previous year, and from there she was able to travel on to Israel. David did not go with her, but now he regrets that he stayed behind. He would like to follow her, but he finds that he is trapped. Whether he left it too late, or for some other reason, the government will not let him go.

David tells his friend that he has become afraid of even asking about permission to leave.

It could turn out that you put your papers in to OVIR [the Visa and Registration Department] and they give them back to you, and then you get a ticket to Siberia, or they can put you in jail.

David has come to a decision. There's no point dreaming about leaving, he tells his friend. He has concluded it's dangerous even to think about it. He realizes he is going nowhere. He and his family will stay at home. But then he comes back to another thought, perhaps even more dangerous, that he cannot help but voice:

We’ll stay in Vilnius and we'll live in the hope that he [one of the Soviet leaders of the time, not named] and generally this whole system will smash their heads in, and maybe we will live here freely and without fear.

After that, David’s friend went home and made a note of the words David had used. In due course he passed the note to his handling officer, because this friend, unknown to David, was a KGB informer. The note ended up in the files of the Soviet Lithuania KGB, where I came across it more than half a century later.

The KGB handler thought David's remarks were pretty interesting. At the end of the report he summed up:

Report: Information on David received for the first time.

Assignment: The source [David's friend] should establish a relationship of trust with David and clarify his contacts. Investigate his political inclinations and way of life.

Actions: Identify David and verify his records.

Few people who lived in Soviet times ever imagined those times would come to an end. David was one of the few.

One Day We Will Live Without Fear

What was life in the Soviet Union really like? Through a series of true stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear describes what people's day-to-day life was like under the regime of the Soviet police state. Drawing on events from the 1930s through the 1970s, Mark Harrison shows how, by accident or design, people became entangled in the workings of Soviet rule. The author outlines the seven principles on which that police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and illustrates them throughout the book. Well-known people appear in the stories, but the central characters are those who will have been remembered only within their families: a budding artist, an engineer, a pensioner, a government office worker, a teacher, a group of tourists. Those tales, based on historical records, shine a light on the many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life

One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State, by Mark Harrison, is published on 2 February 2016 by the Hoover Press in Stanford, California. Order it today from Amazon US or pre-order it from Amazon UK.


August 29, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the Uninvited Guest

Writing about web page http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/11829048/Jeremy-Corbyn-backtracks-on-calls-for-Britain-to-leave-Nato.html

Note: When I published this column yesterday for the first time, I referred to "Robin Corbyn." Goodness knows where that came from. One of the disadvantages of writing a blog is that there is no editor to stop you and tell you not to be so bloody stupid. So, my readers have to do it instead. I have corrected my mistake. I thank those that brought it to my attention. I apologize to Jeremy Corbyn, and also to all the Robin Corbyns, wherever they may be.

Away from England's shores, I have watched Labour's leadership contest at a distance and, so far, in silence. But I will be home imminently, and the prospect has given me words. They came to me as I read Jeremy Corbyn's recent remarks concerning the situation on Ukraine's borders, reported by Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. In these remarks, Corbyn set out to clarify exactly what he does and does not believe.

First, what Corbyn does not believe. He does not believe (or at least, he rejected the suggestion that he believes) that NATO is to blame for Russia's aggression against Ukraine. When asked, he replied:

I didn't say that, come on I've never said that.

Second, what Corbyn does believe. He believes that Russian aggression against Ukraine is a tit-for-tat response in a game in which NATO was first mover. He went on:

So please, the point I am making is that if Nato sets itself an open target of expansion, the Russian military then say to their leaders 'we've have (sic) to expand to counteract Nato'.

If you take this sentence as it was intended, as the essence of Corbyn's thinking about Ukraine, it crystallizes a particular model of international relations. To show you how the model works, I'll have to put some words in Corbyn's mouth, so he might perfectly well turn around and say "I didn't say that." And that would be true. However, in order for him to say what he did say, and believe in what he said, there are certain things he must also believe because, if he did not believe them, what he said would make no sense. These things are what I mean by the Corbyn model of international relations. I'll write them down as four propositions.

Proposition no. 1. International relations is a game. That is, all the players are engaged in an interactive relationship that requires each of them to calculate their best move based on what they expect others to do, so the first problem of each is to understand the others. This is clear from Jeremy Corbyn's clearly expressed desire that we (or specifically NATO) should first understand Russia. I want to say that this is an excellent start. A multi-player game is exactly the right way to conceptualize the problem of international relations. Of course this is the only a start. The next thing is to identify the players correctly.

Proposition no. 2. Only great powers are players. In the game of international relations as Jeremy Corbyn sees it, there are only great powers or great-power alliances. Small countries exist, but they do as they are told. I base this on Corbyn's view of the Ukraine crisis, which he describes as arising from the interaction of Russia and NATO, and no one else. On his interpretation, NATO expansion is a process in which the smaller countries that have joined or might wish to join NATO have no agency. Ukraine itself is only a place where the game is being played. He implies, by not saying anythhing else, that Ukraine's politicians and people are just doing the will of NATO, on one hand, or Russia, on the other.

A particular view of NATO's past enlargement is also implied. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia's western neighbours, were suddenly freed from the constraints of Soviet rule and obligations to the Warsaw Pact. Until that time, they could not make sovereign decisions over their own security. When they could, they chose NATO and begged to be admitted to NATO membership as soon as possible. In the short run, at least, the applicants confronted NATO with increased defensive obligations out of proportion to the assets they placed on the table, so NATO responded with understandable reluctance. In the end, however, it was politically impossible to refuse them. In the Corbyn model, this is described as "NATO expansion," a process driven by NATO, and aimed at Russia, one in which the security aspirations and sovereign decisions of the small countries on Russia's borders had no weight.

Although the Corbyn model correctly presents international relations as a game, the game it imagines is far too simple; it is not just NATO against Russia. The model does not try to understand the smaller countries that are in Russia's neighbourhood.

Proposition no. 3. Understanding ourselves. According to Jeremy Corbyn, NATO has an "open target of expansion." Again, this oversimplifies. Under Article 10, NATO has an "open door." The door is open, but not all may pass. Two conditions are required. Applicants must be willing. And all the existing NATO member states must also be willing, because the treaty explicitly requires their "unanimous agreement." Thus, it is not just NATO that must have the "target of expansion" but enlargement must be based on the sovereign will of every one of the NATO member states and each one of the applicant members.

On this score, too, the Corbyn model is too simple; it does not try to understand the relationship between NATO and its sovereign members. The small countries of Europe do not do what NATO tells them; it is the other way around.

Proposition no. 4. Understanding others. Jeremy Corbyn suggests that Russia has agency, but not initiative; its leaders act only in response to NATO moves. This is clearly wrong; it is the common desire of the many small countries bordering Russia to move out of alignment with Russia to which Russian leaders are now responding. Indeed they are trying to reverse it. But even this is not the root of the problem. The root cause is Russia's past treatment of its neighbours, a historic pattern to which Russian leaders are now reverting.

Proposition no. 5. Understanding others (again). Jeremy Corbyn imagines that Russia's leaders listen to (and take) the instruction of their military. I have no idea if they do that or not. The reason I have no idea is because decision-making at the heart of Russia politics is secret. However, there is no evidence in support of Corbyn's assumption from the accounts of Russian decision making that we have. Take the Russian invasion of Crimea as an example. On 15 March 2015, Reuters reportedthe words of Russian President Vladimir Putin:

Of course it wasn't immediately understandable (what the reaction would be to Crimea's annexation). Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders.

Putin was asked if he had been prepared to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert. He said:

We were ready to do it.

This does not sound as if Russian leaders were taking military instruction, but again, I repeat, we do not know, and Jeremy Corbyn cannot know, because these matters are secret. Here the Corbyn model claims to know more than it can know.

It might seem that the Corbyn model of international relations is not fit for purpose. But this depends on what that purpose is. If its purpose was to predict and thereby to guide action, then it would fail because it does not recognize the limits of its understanding of the world we live in and in which we must make our way.

More probably, the purpose of the Corbyn model is not predictive, but moralistic, that is, to justify a preconceived moral stance. For this it works very well. That moral stance holds that NATO is an aggressive, militaristic alliance, and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is, at worst, on the same level as NATO's aggression against Russia. It is aggression against Ukraine when Russia sponsors separatism, invades, confiscates territory,and kidnaps and imprisons or kills Ukrainian citizens. In the Corbyn model, it is aggression against Russia when small countries with close experience of domination by Moscow seek to join an alliance that might protect them.

In this equation an invited guest and a thief in the night are considered to be one and the same. NATO is the invited guest. For most Central and East Europeans the Soviet Union after 1945 was an uninvited guest. The Red Army arrived and never left. With it came closed borders, a political monopoly, forced ideological conformity, and a secret police. In Ukraine today, Russia is again an uninvited guest. In the moral equation of Jeremy Corbyn, the open and voluntary invitation that leads to NATO enlargement is treated as the same.

We have just marked the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After the event, Warsaw Pact leaders claimed that their troops entered the sovereign territory of a member state in response to the Czechoslovak party leaders' plea for help to restore order. In reality, the Czechoslovak leaders had issued no such invitation. On the contrary, the occupation forces immediately detained the leaders and abducted them to Moscow. But the story gave rise to a joke.

Question:

What are 600,000 Soviet soldiers doing in Czechoslovakia?

Answer:

They're looking for the man who invited them in.


July 06, 2015

Russia's Leaders: Thieves versus Policemen

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33290421

Yevgeniy Primakov, who has died aged 85, was briefly Russia's prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov's early career followed a classic Soviet trajectory: a specialist and postgraduate researcher in foreign afffairs, he became a foreign correspondent, a collaborator with the KGB's foreign service, and an Academician. After the conservatives' failed coup in 1991 he became the last first deputy head of the KGB and then the first head of the SVR, Russia's new foreign intelligence service.

I was in Moscow in September 1998 when President Yeltsin appointed Primakov prime minister. Primakov took the place of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the founder of Gazprom, who presided over a notoriously corrupt administration. In the company of friends I asked:

Well, what would you rather: to be governed by a thief or a policeman?

Without pausing for thought my friends responded with one voice:

A thief!

Why? (I asked).

When it's a thief, at least you know what they're up to.

Primakov did not last long in office. A few months later he was succeeded as prime minister by Vladimir Putin. A few months after that, the same Putin succeeded Yeltsin as President of Russia.

As time passed I often remembered this conversation, especially when I had to think about corruption and the rule of law.

Eventually I decided that my initial question was probably based on an error. In law-governed societies, the distinction between thieves and policemen is clear: thieves break the law and policemen enforce it. But there are lots of places around the world, including Russia, where the rule of law does not fully apply. In such situations the lines between thief and policeman become blurred to the point where it's hard to tell them apart.

When personal safety is at risk and property rights are not secure, thieves take on some of the functions of policemen because they need to protect their ill-gotten gains from robbery by others, or they find they can augment their gains by selling "protection" to others. And policemen become thieves by stealing from ordinary citizens while selling exemption from the law to their political masters and criminal friends.

Russia today is a mixed picture. I'm sure there are some honest policemen and honest politicians. But for such people it will be a struggle to survive and a danger to rise too high.


May 08, 2015

Violent Borders: Will There be Another Great War?

Writing about web page http://daily.rbc.ru/opinions/politics/08/05/2015/554c800c9a79473a8f5d6ee2

This column first appeared (in Russian) in the opinion section of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel, on 8 May 2015.

This week we remember the worst war in history. But we remember the war differently. Russians remember the war that began in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most other Europeans (including Poles and many Ukrainians) remember the war that began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union joined to destroy Poland. The Americans remember the war that began in December 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese remember the onset of Japan’s all-out war at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937.

Many separate wars came together to make World War II. All of them were fought over territory. These wars began because various rulers did not accept the borders that existed and they did not accept the existence of the independent states on their borders. They used violence to change borders and destroy neighbouring states. When they did this, they justified their violence based on the memory of past wars and grandiose concepts of national unification and international justice.

Will there be another Great War? We should hope not, because another Great War would be fought with nuclear weapons and would kill tens or hundreds of millions of people.

A reason to be hopeful is that war is never unavoidable. War is a choice made by people, not a result of impersonal forces that we cannot control. Most differences between countries can be negotiated without fighting. However, claims on territory and threats to national survival are the most difficult demands to negotiate, and this is why they easily lead to violence.

In today’s world there are several places where border conflicts could provide the spark for a wider war. Most obvious is the Middle Eastern and North African region. Small wars have raged there in the recent past and several are raging there now. Israel’s existence has been contested since 1948. The borders of Libya, Iraq, and Syria are being redrawn by force. Access to nuclear weapons is currently restricted to Israel, but could spread and probably is spreading as I write.

But the whole of the Middle East and North Africa includes only 350 million people. More than twice as many people, 750 million, live in Europe. There is war in Europe because Russia has unilaterally seized the territory of Crimea and is fuelling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The effects have spread beyond Ukraine. Russian actions have raised tension with all the bordering states that have Russian speaking minorities, including some that are NATO members. Russia is rearming and mobilizing its military forces. Russian administration spokesmen speak freely of nuclear alerts and nuclear threats.

Looking to the future, we should all worry about East Asia, home to 1.5 billion people. There China is building national power through economic growth and rearmament. China is also redrawing the map of the South China Sea, and this is leading to border disputes with Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Given China’s size and Japan’s low military profile, the only counterweight to Chinese expansion is the U.S. Navy, and this increases the scope for a future nuclear confrontation. While Japan keeps a low profile is low, its relations with China are poisoned by nationalist reinterpretations of World War II on both sides.

In all of these regions there are territorial claims and disputed borders, with the potential to draw in nuclear powers on both sides of the conflict.

Can we learn from our past wars so as to avoid the future wars that we fear? Yes. The first lesson of a thousand years of European history is the value of stable borders. Eurasia stretches for ten thousand miles without natural frontiers. When states formed in Eurasia they had no clear territorial limits, and they fought each other continuously for territory.

The idea of sovereign states that respect others’ borders and leave each other in peace is usually identified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But in 1648 this idea was only a theory. The practice of mutually assured borders is much more recent. The European Union is a practical embodiment of mutually assured borders; this is reflected in the fact that France and Germany no longer fight each other and the smaller states around them also live in peace.

Russia has always been at the focus of European wars. The Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 conflicts from 1870 to 2001 that involved displays or uses of force among pairs of countries. The same dataset also registers the country that originated each disputes. Over 131 years Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note that this is not about capitalism versus communism; Russia's leading position was the same both before and after the Revolution. The United States came only in second place, initiating 161 conflicts. Other leading contenders were China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), Iran (fifth with 112), and Germany (sixth with 102).

How did Russia come to occupy this leading position? Russia is immense, and size predisposes a country to throw its weight around. Russia has a long border with many neighbours, giving many opportunities for conflicts to arise. And authoritarian states are less restrained than democracies in deciding over war and peace. Russia's political system has always been authoritarian, except for a few years before and after the end of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change peacefully.

Russians have suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's borders. The promise was that Europe would no longer suffer from territorial wars. Instead, Europe’s borders could be used for peaceful trade and tourism.

Russia, of all countries, has most to lose from returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity. The best way for Russians to commemorate the end of World War II is to return to the rule of law for resolving its dispute with Ukraine. In questions of borders and territorial claims the rule of law should have priority over all other considerations, including ethnic solidarity, the rights of self-determination, and the political flavour of this or that government. That is the most fitting tribute to the memory of the tens of millions of war dead.


March 23, 2015

Group, then Threaten: How Bad Ideas Move Millions

Writing about web page http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2014.0719

I've been thinking: What is it that enables a bad idea suddenly to spread across millions of people? Here are some of the things I have in mind:

  • In France the National Front is reported as leading all other parties in current opinion polls, having won barely 10 percent of the vote in the 2007 presidential election.
  • In January's general election, nearly 40 percent of Greek voters supported Syriza, compared wtih fewer than 5 percent as recently as 2009.
  • Since narrowly rejecting indendence in last year's referendum, Scotland's voters have rallied to the Scottish National Party, support for which is now reported at over than 40 percent compared with less than 20 percent at the last general election.
  • Most spectacularly, more than 80 per cent of Russians are regularly reported as thinking Vladimir Putin is doing a great job as their president, compared with around 60 percent two years ago.

I am hardly the first to ask this question. There is plenty of research (e.g. de Bromhead et al. 2013) on the economic conditions that foster political extremism, for example. But how do we get from economic conditions to wrong persuasion, exactly? There is the famous Goebbels quote about the "big lie," which is fine as far as it goes but always makes me think: surely there's more to it than this?

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

But it can't be true of all lies. Don't some lies work better than others? What is it that defines the ones that work? My best answer so far to this question is an analogy, which I know is less than proof. But it's a thought-provoking analogy; see what you think.

Last year some behavioural scientists (Strõmbom et al. 2014) finally explained how to herd sheep. There is a sheepdog, instructed by a shepherd, that does the running around. It turns out that there are just two stages. First, the dog must gather the sheep in a single compact group. Once that is done, the second step is to threaten the group from one side; as a group, the sheep will move away from the threat in the opposite direction. That's all there is to it.

The reason why the first step must come first is also of interest: If the dog threatens the sheep without first gathering them in a group, they will scatter in all directions, and that's not what the shepherd wants.

Anyway, there's the answer: Group, then threaten.

People are not sheep, and this is only an analogy. Nonetheless you probably already worked out how I would read this. The shepherds are the political leaders. The dogs that run around for them are the campaign managers and activists. The human equivalent of gathering sheep in a group is to polarize people around an identity that defines an in-group and an out-group. So Scots (as opposed to the English), Greeks (as opposed to the Germans), Russian speakers (as opposed to the rest). Group them, then threaten them, and they will move.

To see how the threat sets the group in motion we need one more thing, an insight from Ed Glaeser. Glaeser (2005) wanted to explain the conditions under which politicians become merchants of hate. He began with a community that has suffered some kind of collective setback. When that happens, people demand an explanation: Who has done this to us? "Us" means the in-group. Political entrepreneurs, he argued, will compete to supply satisfying stories. Often the most satisfying account is one that blames the in-group's misfortune on the alleged past crimes of some out-group: the English, the bankers, the Muslims, the Jews, or the West.

Not only past crimes, however; Glaeser uses the phrase "past and future crimes." In other words, he maintains, politicians often transform these stories into powerful threats by giving them a predictive slant: This is what they, the enemy, have done to us in the past and this is what they will do again if we don't mobilize to stop them first.

Remember: Group, then threaten. The result is mobilization.

References


February 27, 2015

Russia Under Sanctions: It's Not Working

Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/92c75076-b606-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html

On the evening of Tuesday 24 February I joined a panel discussion on "Russia Now," organized by Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery. My fellow panellists were Peter Ferdinand (Politics and International Studies) and Christoph Mick and Christopher Read (History). The discussion was chaired by Mead Gallery director Sarah Shalgosky, whom I thank for the invitation. Here's what I said, roughly speaking.

Sanctions in history

The Russian economy is subject to Western sanctions. These sanctions are of two kinds. There are "smart" sanctions that aim to limit the international travel and transactions of named persons and corporations. There are also broader sanctions that aim to limit the international trade and borrowing of Russia’s financial, energy, and defence sectors.

In history, advocates of economic sanctions against an adversary have usually claimed two advantages for them. One claimed advantage is speed of action: It has often been predicted that economic sanctions will quickly "starve out" an adversary (metaphorically or literally). The other claimed advantage is cost: By attacking the adversary’s economy we can achieve our goals without the heavy casualties to our own side that would result from a military confrontation.

Are these claims justified by experience? Based on the experience of modern warfare and economic sanctions from the Napoleonic Wars through the U.S. Civil War and the two World Wars of the twentieth century to the Cold War, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Cuba, the answer has typically been: "No."

How do sanctions work?

The effects of sanctions on national power have generally been slower and smaller than expected. First, they attack national power indirectly, through the economy, and the economy provides a very complicated and uncertain transmission mechanism. If a country is refused access to something for which it appears to have a vital need, such as oil or food, it generally turns out that there are plenty of alternatives and ways around; nothing is as essential as it seems at first sight. Secondly, external measures will be met by counter-measures. In a country that is blockaded or sanctioned, soldiers will look for ways to use military strength to break ouit and so offset economic weakness. Suffering hardship and feeling unfairly victimized, civilians will become more willing to tighten their belts and fight on.

It would be wrong to go to the other extreme and conclude that sanctions achieve nothing. What have sanctions actually achieved in historical experience? Sanctions do raise the cost of producing national power. They do so gradually, so that immediate effects may not be perceptible. Nonetheless they impose costs on the adversary, and eventually these costs will tell. It is hard to show, however, that sanctions have ever had a decisive effect on their own; at best, they have been shown to have their effect in combination with other factors, such as military force. In those cases, sanctions were a complement to military power, not a substitute or alternative.

Russia: How are Western sanctions supposed to work?

The purpose of Western sanctions is clear: It is to change President Putin’s behaviour, making him more cautious and more accommodating to the demands of Western powers.

What is the mechanism that is supposed to bring this about? Western observers generally see that President Putin's political base is built on the use of energy profits to buy political support. Russia's energy sector, much of it state-owned, has provided major revenues to the Russian government budget. The Russian government uses these revenues to buy support, partly by paying off key persons, partly by subsidizing employment in Russia's inefficient, uncompetitive domestic industries. The result is that many people feel obligated to Putin's regime because without it they would lose their privilege or position in society.

In that context, sanctions have been designed to target those industries and persons that supply resources to the government and those that depend on the government for financial support. By doing so, they aim to deprive President Putin of the resources he needs to retain loyalty.

How have sanctions actually worked? In Russia, real output is falling and inflation is rising. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in recent months sanctions have been only one of three external sources of pressure on the Russian economy.

Three pressures on Russia's economy

Three factors have been at work: sanctions, confidence in the ruble, and energy prices. These factors should be thought of as semi-independent: there are obvious connections among them, but in each case the agency is different.

  • Sanctions. Before the crisis over Crimea, Russian corporations had approximately $650 billion of short-term, low-interest debt denominated in foreign currency. International lenders have reluctant to lend to Russia long term because Russia's lack of protection of property rights leaves them uncertain about the security of their loans. Because this debt is short term, it requires regular refinancing. Russian firms, including organizations and sectors that have not been directly targeted by sanctions, are now unable to borrow abroad. Struggling to cover their credit needs, they have turned to the Russian government to make emergency loans or bail them out.
  • Confidence in the ruble. As lenders have lost confidence in Russia, capital flight has increased. The ruble has lost half its external value in the last year, and this has doubled the real burden of private foreign currency debts of Russian corporations and also wealthy families with housing debts in euros or dollars. This has intensified private sector pressure on the government for bail-outs.
  • Oil prices. The dollar price of oil has halved since this time last year, slashing Russia's energy revenues and plunging the state budget into deficit.

These three pressures all point in the same direction and complement each other. Their cumulative effect is to be seen in the deteriorating outlook for the economy as a whole and for public finance. The government has lost important revenues while spending pressures have multiplied. Arguably, therefore, sanctions have "worked," because they have squeezed the capacity of the Russian administration to satisfy the expectations of its supporters.

A learning opportunity

From a social-science perspective, we should think of this moment as a learning opportunity: How the Russian administration responds in these circumstances should reveal its type.

To benchmark the Russian response today, consider how two Soviet leaders responded to closely similar situations in the past.

  • One benchmark is offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. By the mid-1980s the global energy market had reached a situation not far removed from that of today. A decade of high oil prices was being brought to an end by new non-OPEC suppliers. This put the Soviet economy under a severe squeeze. Faced with this squeeze, Mikhail Gorbachev chose policies of demilitarization and relaxation abroad and at home.
  • Another benchmark is offered by Joseph Stalin in 1930. If anything, the predicament of the Soviet economy in 1930 was even closer to its situation today. Soviet exports were faced with collapsing prices as the world economy entered the Great Depression. The Soviet economy also had considerable short-term debts that suddenly could not be rolled over because international lending dried up. In response, Stalin demanded "the first five year plan in four years!" This involved accelerated mobilization and sacrifice, and ended in the famine deaths of millions of his own citizens (many of them in Ukraine).

These examples illustrate the alternative responses of a ruler under external pressure. When it becomes harder to buy loyalty the ruler can respond like Gorbachev, by moderating demands on supporters; or like Stalin, by cracking the whip over them. In 2015, faced with economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and a falling ruble, which choice has President Putin made? His words and deeds both deserve attention.

  • Before sanctions, President Putin's words were of a Russia encircled by enemies and penetrated by foreign agents. His policies involved accelerated rearmament and frozen conflicts with Moldova and Georgia, capped by the annexation of Crimea.
  • How did things change after Western sanctions were imposed? Putin's rhetoric shifted up a notch with talk of national traitors and a "fifth column" of enemies within. His economists began to discuss ways to shift from a market economy to a "mobilization economy." His foreign policy spokesmen incited tensions in the Baltic region and made nuclear threats against the West. The Russian military embarked on continuous large-scale exercises and increased the frequency of testing NATO defences in the Baltic and the North Sea. Russian forces and heavy weapons were infiltrated into Eastern Ukraine.

The lesson for social science is that under external economic pressure President Putin has revealed his type: He is a power-building authoritarian ruler.

It isn't working

From a policy perspective, the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy is only the tactical outcome of sanctions. Their strategic purpose is to change Russia's behaviour for the better, and that is the only true test of whether they have worked. The lesson for policy is that, despite sanctions, President Putin remains prepared to take risks with peace and to commit aggression. Sanctions are not changing his behaviour.

Now we know this, what should we conclude? A clear implication is that things could get worse. Some worry (or threaten) that, if the pressure on him grows, President Putin might became more confrontational and take additional risks rather than back down and look for compromise. It has also been suggested that, if unseated, Putin might be replaced by someone worse -- a role for which there are several candidates.

Why isn't it working?

This leads to me to a sombre conclusion. It's not a conclusion that I much like; I have thought about it a lot and I wish I could see another way out of the situation. To sum it up, I'll quote in full a letter that I wrote to the Financial Times recently in response to an article by Gideon Rachman ("Russian hearts, minds, and refrigerators," February 16). My letter appeared on 19 February:

Gideon Rachman ... writes : “Rather than engage the Putin government where it is relatively strong, on the battlefield, it makes more sense to hit Russia at its weak point: the economy.” But this neglects the incentives that arise from the time factor.

If the West plays to its strength, which is economic, President Putin will play to Russia’s strength, which is military. But the action of Western financial and trade measures is slow and cannot be accelerated. Meanwhile, Russia can accelerate its military action at will.

In playing the sanctions card while neglecting defence, the West is encouraging President Putin to raise the tempo on the battlefield and change realities quickly and irrevocably through warfare, before the Russian economy can be weakened further.

For the West, therefore, economic sanctions are not an alternative to a military confrontation that is already under way. To avoid disaster, the West must support financial and trade measures with a credible defence.


February 18, 2015

Russia's Improbable Futures and the Lure of the Past

Writing about web page http://rbctv.rbc.ru/polls/list

On 27 January I was asked to join a panel on Russia's Future within the University of Warwick One World Week. (The other panel members were Richard Connolly, co-director of the University of Birmingham Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies, and the journalist Oliver Bullough.) I decided to talk about how Russians are looking to the past in order to understand their uncertain future. Here, roughly, is what I said:

Russia has many possible futures; all of them are improbable. The economy must do better, stay the same, or do worse. Relations with the West must improve, remain as they are, or deteriorate further. Adding them up, there are nine possible combinations. The probability of any particular combination is small, so each is improbable. But one of them must happen because, taken together, the sum of the probabilities is one. One of them must happen, but we have no idea which one.

Faced with an uncertain future, we often look to the past for guidance and reassurance. What was the outcome when we were previously in a situation that felt the same? At New Year, many Russians were looking to the past. I found this out when I stumbled on the website of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel. Every day the RBC website polls its fans on a different multiple-choice question. On 30 December, the question of the day, with answers (and votes in parentheses), was:

What should Father Frost bring for Russia?

  • End of sanctions (6%)
  • End of the war in Ukraine (27%)
  • A stable ruble (7%)
  • Return of the Soviet Union (59%)

It's disconcerting to be reminded of the strength of nostalgia among Russians for the time when their country was a global superpower. The Soviet Union united all the Russias -- if anyone's not sure what that means, that's Great Russia, Little Russia and New Russia (Ukraine), and White Russia (Belarus) -- with the countries of the Baltic, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. The Soviet Union stood for strong centralized rule, with a powerful secret police and thermonuclear weapons. The nostalgia is shared by President Putin, who said (on 25 April 2005): “The collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century.”

Here's a question that RBC asked its supporters on 25 December:

Can direct controls and a price freeze save Russia’s economy?

  • Yes, the free market is not up to the job (55%)
  • No, that would cause insecurity and panic (40%)
  • No need – no crisis (5%)

Again, the strength of support for the backward-looking answer is disconcerting. I tried to think of the last time the Russian economy was in a squeeze like today's. The last time the oil price price came down like this was the mid-1980s when North Sea and Alaskan oil broke the power of the OPEC cartel for a few years (that's the analysis of Anatole Kaletsky). The disappearance of oil rents probably contributed to the collapse of the Soviet economy.

But a closer parallel to today is 1930, when two things happened at once. The global market for Soviet exports shrank in the Great Depression. And international lending dried up, meaning that the Soviet economy could not roll over its debts. The Soviet import capacity collapsed almost overnight. Stalin responded by forcing the pace of import substitution through rapid industrialization. He demanded "The five plan in four years!" The result was a crisis of excessive mobilization that claimed millions of lives in the famine of 1932 and 1933.

Prominent in calling for an economic breakthrough today is President Putin, who responded to Western sanctions on 18 September 2014: “In the next 18 to 24 months we need to make a real breakthrough in making the Russian real sector more competitive, something that in the past would have taken us years.” Government-friendly Russian economists are talking about the need to go from a market economy back to a mobilization economy. In case the foreigners aren't getting the message, first deputy prime minister Shuvalov told those assembled in Davos on 23 January: “We will survive any hardship in the country – eat less food, use less electricity.”

A third question that RBC asked its viewers was on 19 December:

What matters most for the country right now?

  • The foreign exchange rate (33%)
  • Who is a true patriot and who is fifth column (56%)
  • “Vyatskii kvas” (11%)

(The English equivalent of "Vyatskii kvas" would probably be Devon cider. For the reasons why it was being talked up as a solution to Russia's problems last December, click here.)

Here the strength of support for the backward looking answer is shocking. What is the "fifth column" and how does it resonate in Russian history? In 1937, Stalin saw Moscow surrounded and penetrated by enemies. This coincided with the siege of Madrid in Spain’s Civil War. In 1936 the nationalist General Mola was asked which of his four columns would take Madrid. He replied, famously: “My fifth column” (of undercover nationalist agents already in the city). In Madrid the Republicans responded by executing 4,000 nationalist sympathisers. In the Soviet Union Stalin, who was also watching, ordered the execution of 700,000 “enemies of the people.”

In recent times, the spectre of a "fifth column" was first reawakened by President Putin on 18 March 2014, when he remarked: "Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?"

Putin took up this theme again on 18 December 2014: "The line that separates opposition activists from the fifth column is hard to see from the outside. What’s the difference? Opposition activists may be very harsh in their criticism, but at the end of the day they are defending the interests of the motherland. And the fifth column is those who serve the interests of other countries, and who are only tools for others’ political goals."

Here you can see that Putin did affirm the possibility that opposition can be loyal. But is it possible for Russia to have a loyal opposition today? The only example of loyal opposition that Putin could bring himself to mention was the poet Lermontov -- who died in 1841.

These echoes of the Soviet past in Russian opinion today are disconcerting and even frightening. At the same time it is important to remember that, even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union. From today's vantage point it is nearly impossible to imagine how closed, stifling, claustrophobic, and isolated was everyday life even in late Soviet times. Russians in 2015 lead very different lives from Soviet citizens in 1985. They are richer, live longer, are able to visit, study, phone, and write abroad. Even today they are relatively free to search for and find information and discuss it among themselves. In all these ways, the transition from communism has not been a failure.

As Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman (2014) wrote recently: "Putin’s authoritarian turn clearly makes Russia more dangerous. But it does not, thus far, make the country politically abnormal. In fact, on a plot of different states’ Polity [i.e. democracy] scores against their incomes, Russia still deviates only slightly from the overall pattern. For a country with Russia’s national income, the predicted Polity score [a measure of democracy] in 2013 was 76 on the 100-point scale. Russia’s actual score was 70, on a par with Sri Lanka and Venezuela."

To see Russia as just another middle income country helps us to identify Russia's underlying problem. In Russia, just like in Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and most countries outside “the West,” wealth and power are fused in a small, closed elite, and that is how it has always been. The fusion of wealth and power was and remains normal. Before the revolution Russia was governed by a landowning Tsar, aristocracy, and church. After the revolution Russia was governed by a communist elite that monopolized all productive property plus media, science, and education. Today Russia is governed by an ex-communist, ex-KGB elite that has once again gathered control of energy resources and the media. This fusion of wealth and power is neither new nor is it unusual among middle and low income countries.

In societies where wealth and power are fused, particular people are powerful because they control wealth and the same people are wealthy if and only if they are powerful. This is what gives politics in such societies its life-and-death immediacy. To lose power means to lose everything; when power change hands there is often violence. “All politics is real politics," write Douglas North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (2009); "people risk death when they make political mistakes.”

Several times in history, liberal reformers have tried to separate wealth and power in Russia and make space for public opinion. Here are some examples from the last 150 years:

  • In 1864 a reform brought elected local governments – but within an absolute monarchy.
  • Shaken by military defeats and popular insurrections, in 1906 the Russian monarchy introduced an elected parliament, although with few powers, and ndividual peasant landownership, although (as it turned out) with little time for implementation.
  • In 1992 and 1995 Russia saw voucher privatization and "loans-for-shares," creating a class of corporate shareholders – but the outcome was crony capitalism, not free enterprise.
  • In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovskii tried to separate the governance of Yukos from the "power vertical," but he went to prison for it.

All these efforts have so far achieved only partial or temporary success. Russia has not yet found a solution to the problem of the fusion of wealth and power. Here, at last, is an aspect of Russia's future that is certain: If Russia is ever to find a solution to this problem, it will be there.

Note: I updated this column after publication to correct a date -- 2014, which appeared as 1914.

References

  • North, Douglas, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shleifer, Andrei, and Daniel Triesman. 2014. "Normal Countries: The East 25 Years after Communism." Foreign Affairs, November-December.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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