I discussed the background of Russian-American election interference in part 1 of this section of my blog. Apparently wanting to appeal to the casual reader, the authors give the distinct impression that NATO, the EU, and, of course, the United States (although not specifically mentioned) wanted to help along our Eastern European neighbors after they had “seen the light” and wanted democracy. The enlightened guidance of the West would lead them to prosperous times ahead. I tried to show that their “history” is far from how things really were. Now I would like to address some other inaccuracies (that is a euphemism) in the article describing the present state of things in Russia. I will focus now primarily on the economy and demographics. I will address the issues of Georgia, Ukraine, and the mistreatment (or murder) of opponents to the current Kremlin leadership in another blog.
“In contrast to the Soviet Union, however, contemporary Russia offers no clear ideological alternative to Western democracy. Russian leaders invoke nationalist, populist, and statist slogans or themes, but the Kremlin propaganda machine shies away from directly challenging the core precepts of Western democracy: competitive elections, accountability for those in power, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the rule of law. Instead, the Kremlin carefully cultivates a democratic facade, paying lip service to those principles even as it subverts them. Thus, it grants nominal opposition parties representation in the Russian parliament but thoroughly co-opts and controls them. It allows independent media to operate (although not in broadcast television), but journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes beaten or killed if they report on taboo subjects. It permits civil society groups to exist but brands them as “foreign agents” and crushes them if they demonstrate political independence. It oversees a vast repressive apparatus—recently augmented by the creation of a new National Guard force of around 350,000 members—to deter and respond to dissent. In short, Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content.
The simple response is that for the authors to offer such a negative assesment of democracy in Russia they ought at least to provide some evidence. Of course, the presupposition is that the only ideal democracy is Western democracy, specifically American democracy. That is, if Russia does not set up its democracy just like America does, then it is not a true democracy. They assume that we should, without actual evidence, accept their simple assertions that Russia is corrupt and, behind the facade, violent and threatening. Surely no such corruption exist in American politics! Let me offer an alternative view based on what I have actually seen and heard here.
I live in Russia. I have spent almost five years of my life here. Last year, even though I could not vote, I went in the local polling station just to see what it was like. It was pretty much like what I would see in Greer, S.C. People having their documents and registration checked, finding the right (private) booths, voting in private, etc. There was no one there harrassing anyone and no one even carrying signs. I came with my in-laws; they voted, and we left. In the weeks prior to that I had watched various candidates appear on TV; I saw the billboards on the streets and the commercials on T.V. with each candidate vying for votes. I don’t know what Biden and Carpenter mean by their accusation that competitive elections here are being subverted since they content themselves with launching a general broadside. It is hard to discuss their evidence when they don’t present any. The impression, at least as I understand them, is that Putin silences all opposition. Western observers have been here many times for Russian elections. Polls are done repeatedly by such reputable organizations as Levada and Gallup. Election results, of course, always vary somewhat from polls, but nothing here as dramatic as the Trump victory—even as Rachel Maddow proclaimed all day on election day there was no way Trump could win. United Russia did a bit better than what most had predicted, but nothing like the drama that went on in the U.S.
Almost two years ago Putin nominated Ella Pamfilova as head of the Russian Electoral Commission. She has a long record of arguing for human rights and is a vocal critic of any abuses. The fact Putin supported her was widely seen as him choosing someone who people here know is not “in Putin’s pocket.” She was quite outspoken about whatever changes and improvements needed to be made. Also, let me give other differences from the American system, of which Biden and Carpenter seem unaware or at least choose not to mention.
First, the opposing candidates for president are not just seen around election time. A popular form of news cast here is to have several people of different perspectives discuss the news of the day, rather than one talking head reading from a teleprompter or interviewing one or two people at a time. Frequently I see Zhironovsky, the Liberal Democrat on these programs. Also, I’ve seen Zyuganov, the consistent Communist opponent as well. There are other Russian analysts with various areas of expertise. Then there are foreigners, like the American Michael Bohm, who usually gives the pro-American position on issues. His view is sometimes called the “CIA’s perspective.” Some say Russians “love to hate him,” but I have Russian friends who say they respect him. They told me that they would never hold it against an American for being pro-American. Also, Gilbert Doctorow sometimes appears to give a different “American” perspective than Bohm. In other words, you see Putin’s opponents on TV on a regular basis. Here you hear more in-depth analysis of events from different perspectives. It isn’t like Putin’s opponents show up on a billboard just when there is an election and are then quietly escorted away. The persistent idea that Putin is never criticized here is completely false. It rarely gets shrill, and I have not seen it devolve into personal attacks. Criticism here usually stays on the issues. Apparently some American observers think if there is no name calling, then it really isn’t criticism.
The other “candidates” appear in other venues than the news. This New Years night we were watching the holiday entertainment on Russian TV, and Zhironovsky came out and chatted for a bit. He was funny (rather than a bit wild as he can be), and ended by humorously telling people to vote for him, and he would make sure all their wishes came true in the new year.
Contrast that with the past presidential election in America. Debates turned into ad hominem attacks which often had little to do with the issues. In addition to attacking the personal life of the opponent, both candidates also attacked different media outlets for being unfair. I think it was in the last debate that Donald Trump even suggested that he did not trust the process and would have doubts about the election results. He was roundly condemned in the press and by his opponent for that remark. Yet, after he won, it was his opponent who has still to this day condemned the election because Trump allegedly colluded with the Russians. Her “fans” continue to insist the results were not valid, as does Joe Biden. And now we have been treated to a line of Washington politicians and well known celebrity figures we have learned have been living lives of consistent sexual harassment, abuse and even rape. And Biden and Carpenter condemn Russian democracy for not being like enlightened American democracy? Who in his or her right mind would want to emulate American politics? They say that Russia doesn’t have free and fair elections. That is what many Americans–both Democrats and Republicans–are saying about American elections!
The Russian economy is utterly dependent on hydrocarbon exports , so its health is tied to the price of oil and gas; as those prices have plummeted in recent years, the state-owned gas giant Gazprom market capitalization has shrunk, from about $368 billion in 2008 to around $52 billion today.
Since Russia has some of the largest reserves of gas and oil in the world, then obviously its economy is affected by the price of energy. In the past it was true that it was almost solely dependent on those prices. Since the sanctions, however, the Russian economy has diversified. Much of that credit has to go to Putin’s leadership, although I personally think it has been the results of quite a team of sharp planners. The sanctions had the reverse impact from what the West planned. Russia had always been able to import agricultural products easily so the motivation for development was simply not there. Further, the collective farms of the Communist days never worked. I think the same could be said about a number of other kinds of products. The situation has changed, however, and Biden and Carpenter are being either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Due to government incentives last year Russia had the largest grain production in one hundred years. It exported more grain and wheat than any country in the world. (See this article in Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/422a8252-2443-11e7-8691-d5f7e0cd0a16). Financial Times is not some off beat publication. Are Biden, Carpenter and the “Team” at Foreign Affairs ignorant of what has been reported in numerous financial journals? Russian exports of “sugar beet sugar” also surpassed perennial leader France in exports as well. Agricultural production of dairy and meat, as well as fish, were all up. The sale of military weaponry was up this year for Russia. The sale of agricultural products, however, exceeded the sales of arms.
That doesn’t mean energy supply isn’t still in the economic mix in Russia, of course. They have just completed the Yamal project which will supply gas to China and other countries. The agreement with China is for $300 billion in energy over the next 20 years. Further, they will not be using the traditional petrodollar. They will trade in Yuan/ruble. Russia, not Saudi Arabia, is now China’s largest supplier of energy.
Imports, on the other hand, are down. Many see these as evidence of decline in Russia. They believe the sanctions are having the desired effect. It is not how many see things here, however. Putin wants Russia to be self-sufficient by 2020. He wants imports low. The last I checked, Russia is sixth from the bottom in the list of national imports. At 7.2% of the GDP it is the lowest of all major countries. There has been a “Buy Russian” campaign that has worked well. When I first came here in 2002, and even when I was here in 2005-2008, Russians tended to see the West as the producers of the best in products like clothes and personal commodities. That attitude is changing dramatically. The government convinced producers to focus on quality, and Russia does not need the West like it once did.
In trade BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) is making progress and trade between the countries appears to be very solid. Everyone knows China is a very big player in the global economy, and it is clear that China and Russia are much closer diplomatically and in terms of trade than they were in the old days of the USSR. Clearly Russia is much closer than the U.S. to China in terms of diplomacy and trade.
The Russian people were drawn together by the sanctions in a way the West did not anticipate. The plan was to divide Russia and make them unhappy with what they have. As Barack Obama said in 2014, “Russia doesn’t make anything.” John McCain said Russia was “a gas station masquerading as a country.” (See Forbes magazine response and rebuttal https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2017/07/06/sorry-senator-mccain-russia-no-longer-just-a-gas-station-masquerading-as-a-country/#b87fc5022f09) Clearly they were wrong. The economy (GDP) will probably grow around 2% for 2017. Russia has half the population of the United States, but it is the sixth largest economy in the world now in terms of exports. Its GDP will exceed four trillion for the first time ever.
While Russia’s economy may still look small to some in the U.S., it is clearly moving up and the statement it is “utterly dependent on hydrocarbons” is not accurate. Things are not perfect, to be sure. I think wages are still too low, just from my anecdotal knowledge. Also the purchasing power of the ruble is still extremely low. Inflation jumped when the sanctions were first imposed, but probably when the final figures are in, inflation for 2017 will be less than half of what it was in 2013-2014. Things are cheaper overall than in America, I can tell you that from living in both countries. As far as availability, I can buy pretty much any product I need at a reasonable price in the small city where we live. That was not true ten years ago.
Meanwhile, long-term demographic decline is sapping Russian society; the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration has projected a 20 percent decrease in the population by 2050. According to the CIA World Factbook, life expectancy in Russia ranks 153rd in the world, far below the world’s developed democracies and lower even than developing countries such as Nicaragua and Uzbekistan.
Russia has struggled with low life-expectancy since the collapse of the 90s. Life expectancy fell off tremendously during that decade. The “de-modernization,” poverty, hopelessness, and terribly underfunded healthcare system led to the devastation of the health of many Russians. Of course, that was the decade America was making sure the man responsible for those conditions stayed in office. In other words, we did our best to manipulate Russian politics so a loser would stay in office, and now Biden and Carpenter seem proud of the consequences of our actions.
Further, the birth rate was low throughout the Communist period. Lenin wanted women working in factories, not home raising children. Biden, Carpenter and many others also fail to recognize the dramatic impact WW2 had on the Russian population. Over nineteen MILLION Russians died in that war. By comparison, the United States lost just under 500,000. I have stated before my purpose is not to demean the loss of those brave Americans. But when one is writing an article on the demographics of Russia a number of over 19 million lives lost in just one war should be at least mentioned.
I don’t know what year the ranking of Russia at 153 in life expectancy that they are using came from, but Russis has moved up to 110 now. The government is very conscious this is still a problem, however. Life expectancy is increasing here, as is the birth rate. Russia led all European countries in terms of birth rate last year at 1.8 million. The goal is 2 million. The birth rate has increased by 100,000 births annually in recent years. The government provides maternal capital to the families with a second child, which is very generous. We are taking advantage of that! I was surprised, however, to see polls that indicate that only 6% of parents list the maternal capital as a reason they wanted to have more than one child. They simply like the trend of life in Russia and believe it is a good place to raise children. Russians in general have a very high view of the traditional family. To maintain the population at the current level there needs to be 2 births per woman. Right now it is at 1.8. So there are demographic problems in Russia, but Biden and Carpenter take a “snapshot” (and an outdated one at that) and draw conclusions without looking at the trends over recent years.
I have to admit I hated all these statistics. I’m of the “figures don’t lie, but liars figure” mentality. There are enough statistics involved in studying Russia that anyone can twist them and make whatever point they would like. What bothers me most about the article by Biden and Carpenter is the heartless hubris of it. It paints Russia as evil, and nothing in the article seems to stem from a concern for its people, and, from my perspective as one who lives here, no concern for an accurate description of life here. If all I knew about Russia came from this article (and others like it) I would come away with a completely distorted picture of life here. I realize my tone has been quite strident and angry. I have grown tired of writers and pundits who do not live here telling me what life is like here. I will go further and say that if all I knew of Russia was what I got when I came here early in the first decade of this century (2002, 2003) then I would know little of what Russia is like now. Russia has changed a lot–for the better. Of course, it has more work to be done, but the trend is in the right direction.
I remember a Russian friend visiting me in America back in 2003. We were walking across the campus of the university where I taught and passed the flag pole. He commented on how many flags he saw flying in America—from storefronts to front yards. I told him that since 09/11 there had been a surge in patriotism in our country. He sadly lamented, “I wish so much this were true of my country. No one waves the Russian flag there. We don’t even know the words to our new national anthem.” Things are different now. I see a lot of Russian flags flying here now. They sing of their country with gusto. In America millionaire football players refuse even to stand for the national anthem. I spoke on the phone with an old friend in America this week. He is a financial advisor and had called to chat about my retirement funds. We got to talking about politics. I do not know who he voted for and did not ask. After we chatted a bit he simply sighed and said, “Hal, it has gotten so mean here. People no longer respect each other.”
My favorite author is G.K. Chesterton. This week, after the conversation I just mentioned, I was re-reading “Heretics” for the third time (I think). Chesterton referred to “Jingo” politics in the United Kingdom at that time. “Jingo politics” was an anti-Russian attitude from a line in a song from the supporters of the British belligerent policy toward Russia in their 1878 dispute. The line was, “We don’t want a fight, but by Jingo! if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and the money too!” Chesterton observed, “It is one of the deadly fallacies of Jingo politics that a nation is stronger for despising other nations.” He went on to advise his reader to follow the example of those nations who “sit at the feet of the foreigner and learn everything from him.” As I read the news from America I am deeply saddened and worried at the popularity of our own modern version of “Jingo politics.” I can only hope and pray that others will find what I have found. I have learned much from sitting at the feet of the foreigner.