Tuesday, January 18, 2011

An even bigger mess

Readers of this blog and of my past work on EUReferendum will know that I have never been an admirer of Vladimir Putin, have never thought much of his teddy bear (mishka), Dmitri Medvedev and was not particularly taken by the theory advanced on the basis of no evidence, that Russia was turning into a new superpower, ready to use its economic and military might. It seemed to me that there was precious little of that might, thanks to the policies of the Terrible Twins, Putin and Medvedev, and whenever it appeared there was trouble, all too often for Russia.

It would appear that I may have underestimated the chaos that is Russia though not by much. (There is a story that when Soviet historians under perestroika were finally allowed to discuss Stalin and his victims with the great Robert Conquest, they accused him of underestimating the number of victims. Understandably, he was taken aback.) Let me put it this way, some of the details are new to me, though, judging by the persistent rumours that the ex-Mayor Luzhkov and his family have acquired expensive property in London and have even partly taken up residence here, the story of any investigation into his and his wife's finances being dropped is not exactly a surprise.

Via Georgian Daily we can find this story on the Jamestown Foundation site with many references to the original accounts.
For Western observers and potential investors, it is Russia’s incessant slide to the very bottom of the “Corruption Perception Index” compiled by Transparency International that constitutes the clearest evidence of the all-penetrating rot (Vedomosti, December 30). Perceptions are certainly not scientific proof, but many other indexes provide corroborating evidence: for instance, in the “Political Risk Atlas” published by Maplecroft last week, Russia is listed as one of the ten most risky states together with Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and North Korea (Kommersant, January 13). The “Economic Freedom Index” is only marginally better, awarding Russia 143rd place out of 179 (RBC Daily, January 13). Methodologies behind these indices may be imperfect, but the massive exodus of capital from Russia is estimated to reach $38.5 billion in 2010, twice higher than the worst forecast by the Central Bank, which proves that Russian entrepreneurs find it prudent to take their business elsewhere (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 14).

The Russians are indeed less concerned about international rankings but more attentive to several high-profile corruption stories that are developing in the increasingly aggressive blogosphere. One of these involves state-owned Transneft, which according to documents published by investigative lawyer, Aleksei Navalny, and opposition politician, Vladimir Milov, vastly exceed the usual kickback margin in the recently completed construction of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (Ekho Moskvy, Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 14). Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has ensured that Transneft is off limits and its former CEO, Semyon Vainshtok, was allowed to depart quietly to Israel on a “golden parachute.” Nobody in Russia is shocked by the WikiLeaks revelations about deep corruption in Gazprom, but there have been expectations that the scandalous sacking of the Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, would lead to the cleansing of his Augean Stables (Vedomosti, January 11). Luzhkov, however, has wisely chosen to swallow his grievances, and the investigation of the loans provided by the Bank Moskvy (owned by the Moscow government) to Inteko (owned by his wife Elena Baturina) has been discreetly discontinued (Kommersant, January 13).
This is curiously at odds from the way Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, formerly of Yukos, have been and are being treated.

According to the article what really worries the "new Russians" is the country's own blogosphere, which seems to have become extremely outspoken on the subject of corruption recently.
Russia’s rich-and-powerful would not be impressed by yet another rhetorical salvo in the feigned war against corruption, but they are concerned about the outrage among the “have-nots,” fuelled by the unverifiable but irrefutable information circulating through millions of blogs. The palaces outside Moscow and Sochi that have caught the attention of bloggers are abandoned by their anonymous owners (Vedomosti, January 11). Moscow is becoming far less of an arrogant “in-your-face” megapolis of wealth and luxury and the glamorous life-style in its clubs and salons is distinctly toned down. Even the famous Russian week in the Courchevel ski resort in the French Alps that was once a carnival of crazy money was this year a rather subdued affair (www.gazeta.ru, January 13).

This superficial moderation of extravaganza does not change the fundamental fact that corruption in Russia keeps growing, while the economic performance worsens. The federal budget is in the red, petro-rent is shrinking due to rising costs of production, margins of profit in banking are narrowing because inflation runs high, which means that there is less wealth available for stealing –but the appetites in the bureaucracy cannot be reduced. Putin announced the plan to cut the number of government staff members by 5 percent, but experience shows that every attempt to trim the enormous army of bureaucrats only adds to its incessant growth. Medvedev’s pet-project to build a “wonder-city” in Skolkovo outside Moscow as a driver of his “modernization” strategy is in fact just another golden opportunity for embezzlement, because behind every Potemkin village there is always a “black hole” of corruption (www.polit.ru, January 12).

The sudden collapse of the deeply corrupt regime in Tunisia is instantly interpreted by dozens of Russian bloggers as a sign of things to come (www.besttoday.ru, January 16). The brutal suppression of opposition after the elections in Belarus last month was seen by many Russians as another possible future. Neither option looks appealing, but the system of governance that is still approved by the majority has simply stolen its own future.
Still, the blogosphere can be controlled and largely ignored until it gets too big for that. But if even Ezhednevniy Zhurnal (Daily Journal) dares to say that
Putin may pretend to be in charge of the rescue operation in the Sea of Okhotsk, but in fact it is directed through the bargaining between the company owning the fishing fleet and the company that owns the ice-breakers
then things are beginning to look rather difficult.

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