Now They’re After Putin

by , December 11, 2003

The decisive victory of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” slate of candidates for the Duma is the occasion for a new round of Putin-bashing, with “human rights officials” condemning the election results as “a retreat from Russia’s democratic reforms.”

Just what is a “human rights official,” anyway? The way the Associated Press puts it, one might almost suppose that we’re talking about elected officials here, or else guardian angels appointed by God to watch over the human race in His stead. In either case, these unofficial officials deserve to be recalled forthwith, just on the basis of their phony complaints about the Russian electoral process:

“International observers delivered a blistering assessment of the vote, calling it free but not fair. Taxpayer money and state television was used to benefit a few parties, monitors said in their criticism.”

When the Republicans run television ads featuring Bush’s Top Gun landing on that aircraft carrier, I wonder if these same monitors will lodge complaints about inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money. The state-supported media of the OSCE countries – in whose name the rebuke to Putin was issued – all have an indisputable political bias, and the problem is even worse in Eastern Europe.

Bruce George, head of the OSCE’s “parliamentary assembly,” had the nerve to pontificate that the election “failed to meet … international standards.” The White House endorsed this hypocritical hyperbole, noting “concerns about the fairness of the election campaign. We share those concerns.” George openly worried that, "because of the use of administrative resources and the biased media, legitimate democratic opposition parties would not get the 5 percent of the vote they need to enter parliament.”

If every government that used “administrative resources” to gain electoral advantage were to be expelled from the ranks of democratic nations, who would be left? As for “biased media” – is this something that the Western media, which “embedded” itself in the U.S. government’s war propaganda machine, have the right to lecture the Russians about?

The real complaint of Putin’s Western critics is that the Russian parties favored by Washington and its Euro-weenie satellites – Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces – failed to get the 5 percent required to garner seats in the Duma. The election was “free but not fair” – because they didn’t like the results.

Such a self-serving application of “international standards" is hardly surprising, however, coming from the same people who, when they hold an election that doesn’t yield the right results, simply hold another one. And for this White House – which holds power due solely to the vagaries of a Supreme Court decision – to complain about Russia’s lack of “democracy” has the administration’s credibility hanging by a chad.

Since a key indicator of democratic government is ballot access, and diversity of parties, let’s compare the Russian method of party registration with the American system. In Russia, as of the beginning of this year, 29 parties had qualified for ballot status in national elections by verifying at least 10,000 members in at least 45 regions. In the U.S., the rules for ballot status differ from state to state – even, in some cases, from county to county – and the burden of a new party getting on the ballot in all 50 states is so onerous that very few have managed it. When it comes to this basic question of who gets on the ballot, the Russians have the Americans beat hands down.

The charges against Putin and the new, post-Soviet Russia are, in short, malarkey – so what’s the real deal behind this concert of “concern” by Western governments and their media amen corner?

The philosopher-kings of the movement for global “democracy” have been gunning for Vlad the Bad ever since he broke up the media monopoly of the Russian oligarchs. But they really went ballistic went he began to arrest some of these oligarchs for stealing, lying, and trying to buy off the Duma from looking too closely into the highly dubious means by which they acquired their great wealth.

Far from being capitalist heroes out of an Ayn Rand novel, the objects of Putin’s wrath attained their status as the industrial-financial titans of the post-Soviet era by means of government connections.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the “reformed” Russian oligarch who is now sitting in a Russian jail on charges of theft, fraud, and other crimes, likes to compare himself to America’s “robber barons” of the nineteenth century, but as Chrystia Freeland, author of Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, put it, the analogy “raises false hopes” because:

“It suggests that prosperity is inevitable, and I don’t think it’s inevitable in Russia, American robber barons carved their monopolies out of the wilderness. . . . [Russia’s] oligarchs got what they got because it was handed to them by the state.”

Khodorkovsky’s arrest led to an outcry in the West, with neoconservative ambassador-of-ill-will without portfolio Richard Perle demanding that Russia be thrown out of the G-8 on its ear. But the truth about the jailed oligarch’s empire is that every expansion of its boundaries was achieved by political pull rather than entrepreneurial acumen. His initial business ventures under Gorbachev’s perestroika were made possible on account of his position as a high official in the Young Communist League. His Menatep Bank, the first post-Soviet commercial bank in Russia, used government funds on deposit – including from the tax collection agency and the state-owned arms export business – as capital to acquire such properties as Yukos, the state-owned oil company. Khodorkovsky’s bid to acquire it was not the highest, but he got it anyway – at the bargain basement price of $350 million. The other oligarchs are even worse. A list of those being prosecuted by Putin is a veritable cavalcade of criminality:
  • Boris BerezovskyForbes magazine called him “the godfather of the Kremlin,” little more than a Mafia boss. The Western media claims he represents the “free media” in Russia, shut down by the evil Putin. Don’t believe it. Forbes shows how Berezovsky is the main suspect in the murder of the previous owner of Russia’s biggest national TV network, who was shot down in a gangland-style assassination of the sort that was all too common in the Yeltsin era.
  • Roman Abramovich – A Berezovsky protégé, brought into the Yeltsin-oligarch inner circle and amply rewarded with a virtual monopoly on aluminum production in the former Soviet Union.
  • Vladimir Potanin – A former Communist in charge of the Minister of Trade, Potanin profited from the phony “privatization” of Russian industry that merely turned over “socialized” property to the nomenklatura.
  • Vagit Alekperov – Another “former” Commie who turned his government career into a fortune: a first deputy minister of energy under the old regime, Comrade Alekperov snapped up Lukoil, the largest oil company in Russia, under the “shares for loans” ersatz-privatization scheme cooked up by “the Family” as a pay-off for their support to the Yeltsin regime.

Using methods that would be illegal in most Western countries, Russia’s oligarchs ripped off their own shareholders and stiffed foreign investors to the tune of billions of dollars. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

“Khodorkovsky excluded minority shareholders by moving shareholder meetings at the last minute to remote locations. He ordered the issuance of shares to dilute the power of other stockholders. After the financial collapse of 1998, he shuffled his remaining assets through subsidiaries to hide them from creditors. Once, at a time regulators were asking tough questions about operations by his bank, Menatep, a truck carrying Menatep documents happened to fall into the Moscow River.”

The Russians will be forgiven for viewing Westerners preaching “democracy” and "free markets” with some degree of skepticism when they give crooks like Khodorkovsky and his fellow oligarchs a free pass. Their machinations are all “in the past,” as the Times account avers. That was then, but this is now: Khodorovsky has “turned over a new leaf,” we are told, and is now pledged to “transparency,” the principles of “corporate governance,” and, yes, “democracy” and the “free market.”

In order to head off an investigation and full public exposure of their ill-gotten gains, the oligarchs, led by Khodorkovsky, ventured into politics, buying political parties by the dozen, including not only Yabloko and the SPS, but also secretly funding the Communist Party. Putin acted swiftly, and decisively, outflanking the oligarchs with a crackdown that has proved popular on the Russian “street.”

Capitalism, never very popular in Russia, has suffered a setback in the former land of the Soviets – not on account of the arrest of Khodorovsky, but because of the crony capitalism practiced by he and his fellow oligarchs.

It is oh-so-appropriate that Richard Perle should become the chief Western defender of the crony capitalist Khodorovsky: Perle’s links to such companies as Trireme Partners, Boeing, and Hollinger International have paid off as a direct result of his high-level political connections. Boeing was subsidizing his company, Trireme, even as Perle lobbied for huge government contracts on Boeing’s behalf. Trireme Partners received substantial investments from Hollinger – even as Perle and his friends presided over the Hollinger board of directors. Seymour Hersh exposed Trireme as enriching Perle even as the company cashed in on the consequences of his policies. (Perle announced a libel suit against Hersh and the New Yorker in the British courts, which are notoriously tilted against the defendant in such cases, but somehow never followed through on the threat.) The Perles, Khodorovskys, and Conrad Blacks of this world stick together. That’s why they call it crony capitalism.

The real reasons for the concerted attack on Putin and evocations of a new “Russian threat” have nothing to do with the consolidation of a neo-Soviet regime in the Kremlin, and everything to do with Moscow’s increasingly independent foreign policy stance. Putin opposed the Iraq war, and is cooperating with Iran in the development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The neocons have always considered Russia as the enemy: the infamous Wolfowitz memorandum, in which the now deputy defense secretary and architect of the Iraq war laid out the new hegemonism of post-cold war American foreign policy, explicitly targeted Russia for encirclement and subjugation in a U.S.-dominated world order.

Our vindictive neocons, ever vigilant for fresh threats, and new “Hitler” figures to demonize and destroy, are looking beyond the Middle East, to a new cold war with the former Soviet Union. Putin, they think, fits the bill. George W. Bush, who said he looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul,” may decide that he didn’t like what he saw after all. The two got along famously, but the War Party is working hard to undermine U.S.-Russian relations, just as they have alienated virtually every one of our friends internationally. There is much speculation, some of it perhaps wishful thinking, that the neocons are in retreat, and losing their influence over U.S. foreign policy. Surely the course of U.S.-Russian relations in the coming months will give us a clue as to whether or not this is true.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

The brouhaha over Neal Boortz’s invitation to address the Libertarian Party’s national convention is heating up fast – there’s even a “Boot Boortz” blog! – and I am pleased as punch to add yet more fuel to the fire. Journalist John Sugg, of Atlanta’s Creative Loafing weekly, tells me Boortz won’t talk to him after the paper “exposed his compound chickenhawk-ness.” Yes, along with most of his fellow warmongers, the radio talk show ranter – who just can’t wait to send more soldiers off to die – wriggled out of the draft in the Vietnam era. As to how he did it remains something of a mystery, because Boortz’s story changes, depending on what day it is. Sometimes he says he got off because of his poor vision – yet the guy has a pilot’s license. Gee, he can’t be that blind! Alternately, Boortz claims it was his asthma that exempted him, although, as Sugg points out, how this jives with his announced plan to climb Mount Everest is, uh, unclear.

So, it turns out that Boortz, who bloviates endlessly in support of the Iraq war, and charges antiwar protestors with sedition and aiding “terrorism,” is a chickenhawkand a liar.

Is this really the kind of “outreach” the LP wants to engage in?

The response of LP officialdom to the ongoing controversy is, unfortunately, typical of bureaucratic types who have a strong sense of territoriality: extreme hostility. Convention chair Nancy Neale (wife of the LP national chair) sent a message to Texas LP members who insisted on discussing the Boortz issue on a Texas LP email discussion list, ordering them to cease and desist. Those who defied her were deleted from the list.

It’s only natural for people who can’t defend their position to want to cut off debate. Remember, though, these are the same people who are claiming that the LP needs to be “open” to pro-war “dissent” and that we shouldn’t be afraid to “debate” – in public, at the LP national convention. Just don’t do it in private! This goes way beyond hypocrisy, and lands us deep in Bizarro World.

We can expect the same bureaucratic maneuvering at the upcoming meeting of the Libertarian National Committee, where the Neale-ites will no doubt keep discussion of the Boortz question to an absolute minimum (if they even allow it on the agenda).

In a missive to one of her critics, forwarded to me by a member of the Texas LP, Ms. Neale avers that her critics (and antiwar libertarians in general) are “a tiny minority,” warbles that the LP is “small potatoes,” and that anyone who doesn’t approve of Boortz had better shut up.

Let’s show this harpy just how wrong she is. If you’re an LP member, you might want to check out this list of Libertarian National Committee members: find your rep and give him or her a call.

Why am I making such a big issue of this? Because I’m sick unto death of the intellectual and political atmosphere generated by the War Party: they have poisoned the very air with their talk of “sedition” in the antiwar movement, and their bloodthirstiness is mixed with an abject cowardice that any decent person is bound to find repulsive. In a world permeated by Evil (yes, I do mean to capitalize it), is there not one spot that remains untouched, a refuge for those of us who don’t buy into the general malevolence?

No, I’m not a member of the Libertarian Party, I haven’t been since 1983. But I did put in a good 12 or so years as a party activist, and I don’t like to think that the organization I spent so much time building has become a platform for everything I despise.

PUBLIC NOTICE

It has come to my attention that my articles, or in some cases various pieces of them torn out of context, have begun appearing on Indymedia, in what appears to be a systematic campaign on someone’s part to achieve only-God-knows-what. I also note that Pravda has been posting my articles (no, I’m not going to give them a link), without my permission and in express violation of the copyright notice prominently displayed on Antiwar.com: but, then again, you wouldn’t expect Commies (or national socialists, at any rate) to have any respect for property rights. The creepy lawyer and wannabe columnist Glenn Reynolds made much of my alleged Pravda “connection” – leave it to a lawyer to rationalize and legitimize theft.

I have no connection whatsoever with Pravda: indeed, I find this odd mixture of the National Inquirer and the National Socialist personally and politically distasteful. I have no connection with Indymedia, either: apparently their postings are almost completely unmoderated, and posters steal (and alter) original material, so that there is no way to tell what one is reading.

These people are thieves, pure and simple. I also note that they are too stupid, or too lazy, to put in the links that are so essential to any reading of my internet writings: in this important sense, they have altered my work – again, without my permission.

There is only one outlet other than Antiwar.com that is authorized to carry my column on a regular basis, and that is Etherzone.com, which has been running it – with my permission – for years. So if you see “Behind the Headlines” posted anywhere else, you can be sure that it is not authorized by me or by Antiwar.com, and there is no guarantee that you are reading my column exactly as I have written it.

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