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Unfiled January 27, 2005
Putting the Ill in Illarionov
By Kirill Pankratov Browse author

There – it happened again. Just when you think the level of idiocy of Western media covering Russia reached an ever higher level... You get to drier ground, find a mental watermark... and soon get hosed by an even bigger wave of spitting venom, crocodile tears and slobbering nonsense again.

In early January the whole Kremlin-watching mob went into hysterical rage over a teeny change in the Kremlin roster: that Andrei Illarionov, their darling liberal economic advisor, lost one of his several posts.

  • "...the very fact that Mr. Illarionov was driven to such unusual defiance confirmed that dismay over Mr. Putin's course is not limited to political opponents or foreign critics...It would be a terrible mistake to gag the very people Mr. Putin prized for their candor" (NY Times);
  • "...These reformers were pushed out when Mr. Putin secured his second term and started to reveal his true stripes. Mr. Illarionov's pep talks abroad could no longer disguise the real Vladimir Putin. ...showed that rule of law and property rights stand no chance in Mr. Putin's Russia ...should destroy any lingering delusions about Mr. Putin. The Russian leader is no democrat or reformer. It also suggests that some ambitious Russians believe that the time may be ripe to stand up and fight Mr. Putin" (Wall Street Journal);
  • "The outspoken silenced... Marginalising one of the few liberals left in the Kremlin... It is time to see Mr. Putin as a challenger, and not a friend" (The Economist);
  • "...another ominous sign that Putin, a former KGB officer, will tolerate no further dissent..." (Knight Ridder Newspapers);
  • "...Kremlin is becoming a closed box to even the most seasoned Russia watchers, one of the few administration insiders who has openly expressed his views is being punished for doing so." (Moscow Times)

I can fill pages with these howls. It begins to sound as if from some Dr. Strangelove’s asylum: "Russkies demoted a liberal economic advisor... This can’t be anything but a prelude to war... DEFCON 1 immediately. All bombers in the air... Still exploring the last chance to step back from the brink..."

This tsunami of tears and mouth-foam for (yet another) final demise of Russian democracy and the martyrdom of Illarionov kept surging (was he arrested, thrown into prison? was his paycheck stopped for just a week? Not really, he just lost one of his several ceremonial positions somewhere in the middle of government roster).

Only a rotten dictator like Putin would treat his critics like this, right? As opposed to the democratic West, where such dissent is welcomed and flourishing? Let’s compare: there is actually a directly analogous case. Two years into his first term Bush dismissed his senior economic advisor Larry Lindsey. Illarionov very often and very publicly went against the government line. Lindsey, in contrast, never said anything really dissenting to Bushies. His entire career he shilled for right-wing think-tanks, and like many, used to be on a pay of Enron thieves. He just occasionally sounded... suspiciously less than 100% enthusiastic in cheerleading for Bush’s profligacy. One day, he blurted out that the Iraq war could cost up to $200 billion. Of course, it ran up much more since then, but you can’t just say it outright in Bushworld. That was quite enough – Lindsey was out.

So much for Washington’s tolerance of "dissenters."

The second question, do all these endless effusive compliments for Illarionov make any sense at all?

There is nothing wrong with somebody kicking Putin government’s butt – even better if it comes from the inside. The only condition is that the criticism should be on the level somewhere above the total gibberish. I don’t care as much whether one economic advisor is an ardent self-professed liberal or a fiery communist. What I really can’t stand are quacks.

Have you seen a CNN commercial where Christine Amanpour keeps explaining to some doltish office babe that it is "Ee-raq, Ee-ran," not "Eye-raq, Eye-ran"? "It is my personal bugaboo," she groans despairingly.

I have my little personal bugaboo too. I have an acute allergy to charlatans, especially those that cheat with simple logic or arithmetic. For example, in dealing with a banker you can take for granted that he will screw you on some hidden charges, fine-print conditions and will always try to sell you some overpriced shit on the verge of dropping dead. But if he can’t compute simple compound interests and cheats you even on that, it is an entirely new level of fraud.

Illarionov is a charlatan like this. Many of his economic "ideas" are pure nonsense. The list is too numerous. I’ll just give a couple of examples.

Among his two main recurring themes there are: a) Russia does not need foreign investments, and should push every available dollar out of the country lest they will cause ruble appreciation and decrease competitiveness; b) economic growth in the last few years is solely attributable to prices and increasing volumes of oil and other export commodities, i.e. more revenues from export coming into the country.

Aside from both being silly, these two things are in direct logical contradiction with one another. If more foreign currency coming into the country is bad for economic growth (a), then much higher export revenues from oil and other commodities would kill growth completely, rather than be its main driver (b). Any sane person pausing for five seconds would see that (a) and (b) are mutually exclusive. Illarionov and his coterie of admirers do not.

He called Kyoto Protocol "global Auschwitz" and a "death sentence for economy." This is absolutely nuts, but this kind of rhetoric elicits orgasmic squeals from American right-wing cranks. Kyoto is not a simple matter, but whether one supports or opposes it, the best guess is that its impact will be moderate to negligible – both in climatic and economic sense. My take on Kyoto is somewhat positive overall - I would refer to my fairly lengthy article in Peter Lavelle’s site: , with some scientific summary.

But it does not matter a slightest bit whether Illarionov’s pronouncements make any sense. You can see how the eyes of those MBA morons and media junkies glaze over: "He always criticizes Putin! He knows liberal lexicon! And he reads Ayn Rand! And he is married to an American too! Just think how different he is from those other unwashed Russian savages!"

Illarionov is one of those whose "philosophy" led to the debacle of "monetization of benefits" now playing across Russia. Just think of it: while Washington spends like a drunken sailor and runs a huge deficit even in its most favorable demographic period, Russia maintains a large budget surplus even after paying all foreign debt without refinancing, uselessly accumulating this surplus in currency reserves and the stabilization fund, while the country is literally dying out. And it is the likes of Illarionov and other "liberal ministers" that think Russia can’t afford to fully compensate babushkas for their lost privileges and subsidies on transportation and medicine. I am not a big fan of cheap populism, but this is incomparably worse: it is a perverse, sadistic death wish as well as staggering idiocy that is simply mind-boggling.

Maybe he really should be put down a peg... Oh, scratch that: can just somebody make him shut up? Just simply, bluntly shut up for a change. And let all the Western media choke in their own squeals and howls. That would be a little fringe benefit. Not quite compensating the benefits all those babushkas lost as a result of this bad advice, but still...

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