Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 September 2015

The World’s Most Dangerous Man


[I hate to upstage my post on how Russia and the US could prevent small-power nuclear arms races, which you can find here. But a recent exposé of Putin’s personal corruption demands analysis while casting doubt on that post.]

The Man
The evidence
The consequences
The danger
A big chance missed
Coda: An apology to David Brooks

The Man

Who is the world’s most dangerous man? If you had asked me last week, I would have named Kim Jong Il or Bashar Al-Assad. After all, the one threatens mass murder and destruction with frequent acts of real or feigned insanity. And he has nuclear weapons and crude missiles. The other already has murdered hundreds of thousands and displaced millions in a probably futile attempt to preserve his life, obscene wealth and murderous clan.

But if you asked me today, I would name Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the latest and (we all can hope) final tsar of Russia.

What has changed? We now have more information about Putin. And it suggests that, far from being the small-d democrat and sincere economic reformer that I and others had hoped he might be, he is Russia’s new tsar. He’s terribly clever and awfully good at making people think what they want to think. But he’s a tsar without the tradition and responsibilities of monarchy, without a sense of duty or obligation to his people. He is subjecting Mother Russia to a kleptocratic Mafia of which he is the capo.

How do we know? Tuesday night PBS’s Frontline aired a credible and damning exposé of Putin’s personal history and apparent corruption of Russian business, society and government. Even more damning, the report suggests that Putin’s personal corruption began at the very start of his political career, as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg in the early nineties. It also details Putin’s protection, in turn, of the man who gave him his start, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoliy Sobchak, and the Russian President who anointed him Russia’s leader, Boris Yeltsin. But more of this later.

Frontline is not just any TV news program. It’s undoubtedly the best and most credible purveyor of hard-hitting and insightful investigative journalism on American TV today. Among other things, it exposed our big bankers’ massive culpability for the Crash of 2008 and the role of our factory chicken farms in spawning “superbugs” by overusing antibiotics. It has a fine history of digging deep and credibly.

The evidence

How credible is Frontline’s exposé of Putin? I will mention just three points. First, it shows actual footage of a meeting among Putin and Russian oligarchs, in which the now-exiled oligarch Khodorkovsky and others suggested reigning in corrupt Russian business practices and moving toward Western-style rule of law and transparency. Shortly after that meeting, Khodorkovsky was arrested, tried for various offenses, stripped of his corporate holdings, and ultimately jailed for ten years.

Second, there is evidence, which one Western commentator called “incontrovertible,” that a least one (fortunately an abortive one) of the so-called “terrorist” bombings of Russian apartment buildings that contributed to a then-obscure Putin’s first election was planned by the FSB, successor to the KGB. In other words, the security services that spawned Putin apparently were agents provacateurs, willing to kill fellow Russians to put him in office. If so, they were much like the Nazis who burned down the Reichstag to bring Hitler to power.

Finally, and most important, Frontline recalls the four Russian journalists who were murdered, along with a former KGB agent, under suspicious circumstances. All were absolutely native Russians, with few or no foreign connections at the time, and all were after evidence of Putin’s malfeasance or corruption. (Frontline didn’t even mention the recent political murder of the progressive Boris Nemtsov, perhaps because he had been about to reveal evidence of Russia’s direct involvement in Eastern Ukraine, rather than evidence of Putin’s corruption.)

No other country, let alone a major power, has murdered so many native journalists in so short a time. Other authoritarian nations—including China, Iran and now-tyrannical Egypt—just jail them. Tyrants jail nosy journalists as a warning to them and others. They kill journalists only when they’ve already discovered stuff that might, if exposed, get the tyrants themselves killed or deposed.

Frontline’s evidence is strong enough to have convinced this blogger, an erstwhile admirer of Putin, who, while increasingly disillusioned, had been sitting on the fence regarding the specific issue of Putin’s personal corruption. The exposé is less than an hour long. Anyone who cares about Russia, geopolitics and world peace should watch it. It may be the most important investigative report that Frontline ever has aired.

It makes me feel like one of Lenin’s “useful idiots” to have sat on the fence so long. But until I viewed that report, I had seen no persuasive evidence of Putin’s corruption. Apparently he and his cronies covered their tacks adroitly, and sometimes brutally; he is nothing if not a clever and ruthless man.

Now, however, there is even evidence of an obscenely opulent, Yanukovych-style palace Putin had built for his own retirement. It is still heavily guarded, but Putin claims it has been sold to an unnamed foreign corporation, no doubt with a generous lease-back provision. Putin can’t retire to it now because an enraged Russian populace might take it and turn it into a museum of despotism like Yanukovych’s own.

The consequences

I don’t want to dwell on the evidence, which readers should judge for themselves. What I want to explore briefly in this essay is the geopolitical implications of this exposé, assuming it is true. They are both huge and horrendous.

Let’s begin with the notion that Putin is a very smart man. If he devoted his considerable intelligence to the betterment of his nation and his people, it would be possible to reason with him and to reach mutually beneficial compromises. (So it seemed to be with Russia’s useful help in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran.) Yet if Putin’s primary goal is preserving his own wealth and power, and those of his family and cronies, compromise and reason may become much, much harder. The only way to get him out of power may be an ironclad guarantee of immunity from prosecution like the one he gave Boris Yeltsin.

Next there’s the question of foreign wars. Putin’s supporters used the so-called “terrorist” apartment bombings, which the FSB itself may have perpetrated, as a pretext for the Second Chechen War. Yet reportedly no Chechens were ever charged for of convicted of those crimes. What other wars might Putin wage or threaten to keep false patriotism strong and his popularity high and stay in control?

The worst consequences, of course, await the Russian people. A Western commentator noted [set timer to 46:16] that Russia’s median personal wealth is now $871, lower than India’s, which is over $1,000. She also notes that 110 individuals own 35% of Russia’s aggregate wealth. That’s the greatest national inequality globally, including our own.

At the end of the exposé, Frontline recounts a tale from Putin’s youth as an only child growing up in Saint Petersburg. Apparently he had an encounter with a rat in his apartment building. In it he learned the hard way that a cornered animal with nothing to lose will lunge.

So in Putin we have a leader unique on the world stage today. Along with Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe, he is pretty much in absolute control of his country. He has not just marginalized Dmitri Medvedyev; he has emasculated him. In contrast, Xi Jinping has to deal with a seven-member committee, and the Ayatollah in Iran with a very active president and a big, if low profile, private business community.

Frontline also suggests that Putin, as spook, learned well the skill of deluding and deceiving others. Apparently he has deluded or inveigled other world leaders, including our own intelligence-challenged Dubya and his poodle, Tony Blair. Even Angela Merkel only recently has given up trying to understand Putin.

Putin scammed Dubya by wearing a crucifix to a summit meeting, leading Dubya to believe he could look into Putin’s “soul.” Fortunately for us Yanks, our current President is both smarter and more skeptical. He looked at Putin’s actions, not his “soul,” and decided to impose economic sanctions as a deterrent to further mischief in Ukraine.

So Putin is a man who apparently started a minor war for the sole or primary purpose of keeping himself in power. And he is a man who, we now know, has cleverly gamed the Russian system for over twenty years to amass a personal fortune estimated at over $40 billion. He has played musical chairs with the president’s and prime minister’s offices, and he may have had journalists and others killed to keep his kleptocracy secret and himself in power.

Putin also is no doubt the most macho of any global leader, with the possible exception of Kim Jong Il. He’s a self-confessed fierce personal competitor, in skiing and judo among other sports, and he’s doesn’t like to lose. With his nuclear arsenal and his modernized army, he could be quite formidable as a cornered rat, no?

The danger

Today the world has three superpowers. Two are military superpowers: the United States and Russia. Each has a world-destroying nuclear arsenal and nation-killing nuclear submarines. Then there is an economic superpower, China, which will soon become the world’s leading economy. It’s not yet a military superpower, mostly because its leaders don’t really see the need. It’s still focusing on bringing all of its huge population—nearly a quarter of humanity—into the twenty-first century. First things first; Chinese are a practical people. But China has the potential.

Finally, there is a fourth potential superpower, the EU, but it’s not quite there yet. It’s still organizing, knitting its various economies more closely together and deciding whether to combine its politics. As the current refugee crisis so sadly illustrates, it hasn’t yet begun to develop a coherent foreign policy; and its collective military is weak, ill supplied, and disorganized.

Of these four superpowers—economic and/or military—only one has the potential to become a modern Sparta or a criminal enterprise with super power: Russia. Although great in geographic area, it’s the smallest in population (by far), the smallest in wealth (by far), and the smallest in government.

In fact, it’s possible to say that modern Russia is the closest major power, let alone superpower, to a genuine autocracy, governed by a single man for his own personal use and benefit. In contrast, China has a seven-member committee, the United States still has a (barely) working Congress, plus fifty independent state governors, and the EU has 28 sovereign nations, all of which are democratic in form, and most in substance.

Not only that. All superpowers but Russia have effective limits on supreme leaders’ terms of office. With Putin’s manipulation of the Russian Constitution and his playing of musical chairs between the presidency and premiership, he has become, in effect, president for life. Turkey’s Erdogan is trying valiantly to emulate him.

So we have a twenty-first century anomaly: a genuine autocracy—a monarchy if you will—in charge of one of the world’s four existing or nascent superpowers.

This is not entirely surprising. In all its thousand-year history, Russia has never seen much but autarchy. The Communist Period saw a touch of rule by committee, especially during its declining years, but the innocuously named “General Secretary” was always more equal than others.

As for a true market economy, Russia has never had much of that, either. It has only had a few desultory attempts to form one, both before the bloody Russian Revolution and in the period of glasnost’ and perestroika before Putin’s reign. As for personal liberty, Russia freed its surfs at about the same time as we Yanks freed our slaves; but, unlike our slaves, Russia’s surfs comprised the vast majority of Russia’s population.

Don’t take my word for it. Take Putin’s cronies’. One of Putin’s rare brave antagonists was recently told, literally, “Putin is tsar, but you are a serf.”

Why is this so dangerous? It would be one thing if Putin were a genuine, public-spirited leader concerned for Russia’s people and future, like Peter the Great. Many of us Yanks, including me, once thought that of him like that, and not without evidence.

Early in his reign, Putin made a speech before the Bundestag, in fluent German, proposing a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the urals. Now he has repudiated and stanched that very flow of trade. Then there was his famous Russian telethon, throughout all of Russia’s eleven time zones, in which Putin declared poverty in Russia his greatest shame and recited a multi-point plan to address it. Now Russia is returning to poverty, as the dismal statistics quoted above reveal.

Yet there’s an even worse side to Putin: the Mafia capo. During his very first political (non-spook) job, as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, kleptocracy reared its ugly head. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russian agriculture was in disarray, and food became scarce in the big cities. Putin prepared a daring plan to exchange Russia’s oil and minerals for food. But something funny happened. The oil and minerals disappeared to the West, but most of the food never arrived in St. Petersburg. The payment disappeared, too, to the tune of 124 million (whether dollars or rubles is not clear) [set timer at 5:20, esp. 8:38]. Later Putin’s boss Sobchak, the mayor, protected him from prosecution; and Putin, in turn, reportedly flew his Sobchak out of Russia in a private plane, while under prosecution, on the pretext of treatment for a heart attack, from which Sobchak apparently recovered quickly.

Thus Putin learned the value of personal loyalty well. After Boris Yeltsin anointed him successor, Putin’s first act as Russia’s first-ever elected president was to grant Yeltsin himself immunity from prosecution. At the time, Yeltsin had been the focus of a “massive corruption investigation.”

Personal loyalty and exchanges of favors are not unknown in the West. But an historical inflection point came in the meeting among Putin, Khodorkovsky, and other Russian oligarchs. There, Khodorkovsky (and reportedly others) proposed trying to cleanse Russia and put Russian business on a more transparent, lawful and orderly basis. Putin’s response was to jail Khodorkovsky and, through so-called “legal process,” strip him of his assets.

The message was loud and clear: whatever the purpose—even a cleaner and sounder Russia—don’t challenge the capo, the new tsar. From an economic perspective, it was a somewhat more subtle version of Saddam’s pulling his pistol and murdering his brother-in-law openly in a cabinet meeting. No oligarch or other business leader has challenged Putin since.

Governments, of course, can come and go. But Putin apparently will never go, at least quietly. His goal is no longer modernizing Russia, if it ever was. It’s personal and political survival. Putin has become Assad, the man whose destruction of an entire nation Putin has backed with his tutelage and high-tech weapons. Syria’s devastation, and the consequent waves of refugees that now trouble Europe, give us all an insight into what rats backed into corners can do.

So does the totally gratuitous devastation of Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s response to Kiev’s recent grant of substantial autonomy to Donyetsk and Luhansk will be a signal how far Putin intends to go. If the civil war in Ukraine continues or escalates, we will know that its primary purpose is not to change or heal Ukraine, or to protect the Russian-speaking minority, but to provide a political distraction and cause of false patriotism to keep Putin and his cronies in power in Moscow.

In the final analysis, Putin and his economic predations are Russia and Russians’ business. It’s their country.

But in trying to get rid of Putin, Russians have three strikes against them. First, Putin is in the process of purging all foreign help and influence, just as Stalin did during the Terror. He’s marginalizing foreign businesses, discouraging foreign investment, and making it much harder for foreign NGO’s to operate in Russia. He’s also passing vague and general “security” laws that can be used, at a moment’s notice, to expel or jail foreigners working in Russia, no matter how well-intentioned. In so doing, he’s returning Russia to its traditional xenophobia, isolation and paranoia.

Second, Russia has absolutely no tradition of getting rid of a bad (and clever!) autocrat peacefully. It’s only “success” was what may have been the world’s bloodiest and most chaotic revolution. The dissolution of the Soviet Union came at a time when Soviet leadership was collective, old, weak and losing its grip, and bravely challenged from within by visionaries like Gorbachev. None of those things applies to Putin or modern Russia.

Finally, there may be some sense in Russia’s current push for agricultural self-sufficiency, even at the cost of publicly destroying some foreign produce. Desires for food security and self-sufficiency has become a recent global trend. They’re consistent with the biological imperatives of genetic and geographical diversity, as well as the economic and political imperatives of diversification and distributed production. If they produce a vibrant privatized system of agriculture in Russia, they may ultimately be good for Russia, although they may cause food shortages and hardship in the interim.

But in reinforcing Russia’s traditional tendencies toward xenophobia, economic isolation and paranoia, food isolation, too, risks creating a modern Sparta. Such a Sparta would be run by a Mafia capo, with the type of autocratic and kleptocratic government that no modern major power today shares, armed with thousands of strategic nuclear weapons and nation-killer nuclear submarines.

A big chance missed

But those are problems for the rest of the world. For Mother Russia, the saddest thing is the big chance missed.

Here in America, it took the better part of a century to bring our own oligarchs, aka “Robber Barons,” under control for the common good. Among other things, it took our antitrust laws, their faithful prosecution over decades, the income tax, and our modern regulatory state. And curbing oligarchs is a never-ending task, as the Koch Brothers and Citizens United now remind us every day.

In his fateful meeting with Khodorkovsky and others, the oligarchs came to Putin of their own accord and offered reform. When he turned them down by turning on and jailing Khodorkovsky, Putin missed a chance that any progressive leader would have eagerly grabbed and cherished. Teddy Roosevelt, our Great American Trust-Buster, would have loved such a meeting!

Only two possible motives make sense. First, Putin might have been afraid that any attempt to reform the thoroughly corrupt system he had built would reflect on him and possibly remove him from office or worse. Second, Putin might have feared that opening Russia to real business would subject it to foreign influence and control—things at which his KGB training instinctively recoiled. Once a spook, always a spook.

Whatever the reason, in that meeting Putin missed a big chance to turn Russia into a real modern economy and to modernize it rapidly, perhaps as quickly as China and the so-called “Asian Tigers” have modernized. That was a sad day for Mother Russia and for the world.

Coda: An apology to David Brooks

This blog has a tradition of admitting error and apologizing for it. Those things not only clear the air; they are good for truth and for the soul.

So I hereby apologize to conservative pundit David Brooks for belittling his characterization of Putin as “a narcissistic autocrat.”

It was not so much the word “autocrat” that troubled me. For some time, Putin has been more firmly in command of Russia than any other modern ruler commands a major power, let alone a military superpower. What troubled me was the word “narcissistic;” it seemed inaccurate, at least when I credited Putin’s public spirit and vision.

Now, strong evidence of Putin’s corruption leaves little doubt that much of his personal motivation is narcissistic. Even his internal conception of Russia now seems narcissistic. He seems to believe that Russia’s playing by global rules and joining the global economy will somehow be bad for Russia. He has no vision of how joining the rest of the world might make Russia and its people more prosperous, happy and free. That, too, is an odd form of narcissism—a cultural narcissism.

So I willingly confess error. Putin indeed is a narcissistic autocrat. His great tactical intelligence and his superior ability to communicate and persuade mask his utter lack of vision how best to improve his nation and his people’s lot. His already-too-long reign as Russia’s current tsar may yet prove tragic for him, for Russia, and even for the world. A more successful, ever more secret Mafia does not bode a promising future for Russia.

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