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Feature Story December 15, 2005
How To Watch Post-Soviet Politics By Mark Ames Browse author Email

Every once in a rare while in the world of Western Russia-watching, a groundbreaking book appears that makes sense of some aspect of Russia that hadn't yet been put so succinctly or clearly.

In the mid-1990s, that book was Matthew Maly's Understanding Russia, a short pamphlet-like book originally designed to help the hordes of incoming Western advisors comprehend the alien culture which they were supposed to transform. Unfortunately, USAID pulled funding from Maly's book once they actually saw it - its problem was that it told the truth.

This summer, a Ukraine-specialist from the University of London, Andrew Wilson, published a book titled Virtual Politics, which is at least as important. Like Maly's treatise on the "Russian mentality," Wilson's book is a merciless expose of post-Soviet politics.

Wilson approaches Russian politics exactly as a Russian political junkie would be expected to if he really spent a lot of time in this part of the world: he doesn't believe a single thing he sees. There are only conspiracies and conspirators inventing the surface reality to suit their needs.

In practical terms, what this means is that Wilson debunks the single greatest paradigm-myth through which all Western hacks have tended to view, and misunderstand, Russian politics: the alleged struggle between the "good" reformist underdogs and the evil, always-on-the-verge-of-taking-power Soviet-nationalist revanchists; or in other words, the narrative in which Russia is either lurching forwards or backwards on its path towards democracy.

That, says Wilson, is the Original Mistake: "The assumption that post-Soviet politics can be studied within the framework of some kind of 'transition to democracy' was always doubtful and is now untenable," he writes, essentially laying waste to about 95% of Anglo-American thinking on post-Soviet Russia.

This may not seem like Big News to longtime eXile readers, but Wilson's audience is the Western academic and think-tank establishment, and by extension the entire mainstream opinion-making and policy-making body - all of whom are deeply invested in this fake dichotomy which has framed the American Party Line since the mid-late 1980s. There is little to be gained professionally from trying to debunk it - witness the professional problems much bigger academics like NYU's Stephen Cohen and Georgetown's Peter Reddaway, who both argued against the fake reformist-vs-revanchist struggle, endured in the 1990s. Indeed this false dichotomy is still the unchallenged dominant frame - witness Kremlin Rising, published just a month before Virtual Politics. Kremlin Rising not only got its writers - the former Washington Post correspondents in Moscow - blue chip reviews and promo appearances, but the book is a bestseller and a hit in the world of opinion-making, helping to cement the view of Putin as a black-caped villain crushing Russia's supposed democracy.

Virtual Politics, on the other hand, is ranked around 400,000 on, and still doesn't have a single reader review on its page. Not that it's any nicer on Putin - the difference is, Virtual Politics is right.

Until now, no English-language book has documented so thoroughly the specific, identifiable links in the grand political conspiracy of post-Soviet Russian politics, this "fake democracy" as Wilson calls it. After reading this book you will never look at Russian politics, or Russia itself, the same. And you wouldn't have made such a fool of yourself investing anything into the recent Moscow City Duma elections as a struggle for democracy, the way so many hacks did, and so many will continue to do.

* * *

The mainstream Party Line holds that President Putin is rolling back Russia's fledgling democracy which flourished under Boris Yeltsin. This is the biggest scam of all which the West has bought hook, line and sinker. In reality, Putin is merely a New Improved Yeltsin. According to Wilson: "[T]he Putin era has only perfected techniques that were already common under Yeltsin." This is important because if true, it erases the fake dichotomy central to the West's framing of Russia.

From the time of Yeltsin, and even before him to the late Gorbachev era, the elite has held onto power by two main strategies: creating and controlling the opposition - which often means also creating a fake-terrifying "revanchist" bogeyman for the ever-gullible Western media and analyst, as well as segmenting the opposition into several parties which drain votes from each other - and using every "administrative resource" available, from the courts, media and bribery to threats and murder - to control the outcome of this fake democracy.

The strategy is aimed at two audiences: the Russian electorate, and the West's opinion-makers. For the latter, the Kremlin has always needed to create a bogeyman to make the Kremlin look not just good, but essential to the West's security. The West, it turns out, are a bunch of gullible dimwits eager to be fooled by their own good guy/bad guy view of the world.

Wilson provides a table titled, "Occasions When the West Has Bought the Myth of 'Lesser Evil,' to date":

Communist Bogey

("Red-Brown") Boris Yeltsin v White House 1993

Yeltsin v Gennadii Ziuganov, 1996

Vladimir Putin v Ziuganov, 2000

also parliamentary

Yeltsin v Zhirinovskii, 1993

Yeltsin v Russian National Unity, 1998-99

The project to create a bogeyman really started under Gorbachev during the late Perestroika years, when he was losing support. The KGB created Newsweek-ready Fascist pinups like the anti-Semitic costume-fetishists from Pamyat. Interestingly, the man who helped create the anti-Semitic scarecrow was Filipp Bobkov, who headed the KGB's Fifth Chief Directorate, responsible for all domestic "counter-intelligence," until 1991. After that, he left to head up security and intelligence for future-oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky's Most Group - that's right, the same Gusinsky who eventually headed the Russian Jewish Congress, and who convinced much of the American opinion-makers that Putin's attack on him in 2000 was part of a dark anti-Semitic plot. Wilson reveals that both Gusinskii and Berezovskii funded neo-Nazi scarecrow Alexander Barkashov's Russian National Unity party in the late 1990s, the same ones that "Clinton found so alarming."

One of the Kremlin's most successful bogeyman projects was the LDPR's Vladimir Zhirinovskii, the KGB-planted pseudo-fascist. Strobe Talbott, Clinton's Man in the CIS, still labeled Zhirinovskii liberalism's "antipode (and our antipode)" as late as 2002 - even though Primakov had already told him that Zhirinovskii was "like a cat - you stroke him once and he turns all sweet." Al Gore, while flying on Air Force Two heading to Moscow in 1993, said, upon learning of Zhirinovskii's Duma victory (won thanks largely to massive Yelstin-engineered fraud), that he "had decided to suspend the usual practice of not commenting on other countries' domestic politics and declare Zhirinovskii the personification of much that the US was sworn to oppose." And none other than former eXile nemesis Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment proudly recounted to me in a nasty email exchange in 1998 that he and his wife had helped organize a protest against Zhirinovsky when he came to San Francisco in 1994. Around that time, Zhirinovsky was outed as a half-Jew.

Zhirinovsky is no Fascist. He is a businessman, as Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky explained: "After his 1993 success, Zhirinovskii was politely reminded that he would never be president or prime minister, but that he was welcome to enrich himself in the Duma, where the LDPR sought out lucrative committees that had nothing to do with its own program, such as those on natural resources, building, transport and energy." The Kremlin's view of the LDPR was that they were "very expensive, but very effective." By 2000, Zhirinovskii was thinking of "comfortable retirement," but he managed to save himself by both selling seats on his party list to second- and third-tier oligarchs, as well as effectively acting as Putin's attack dog and voter-siphon against threats from Khodorkovskii, the Communists and the far-right.

Gorbachev also whipped up a fake conservative-revanchist threat allegedly posed by the so-called Ligachev faction. "The representation of late Soviet politics as a struggle between reformers and die-hards, democrats and authoritarians, good guys and bad, was the greatest illusion of all," Wilson writes, debunking what all of us were told. Indeed Wilson explicitly lays all the blame for the failure of democracy in Russia on Gorbachev's shoulders: "[I]n 1990 it was still possible that the Communist party monolith could be divided in two, creating both a 'conservative' and 'social-democratic' party and striking a radical blow against the myth of unitary 'power.' This path towards real rather than virtual pluralism was never taken: Gorbachev preferred artificial attempts to create a rigged contest between a 'party of the future' and the 'party of the past.'"

Sound familiar? It should, because politics in Russia has been stuck in this exact same rigged frame ever since. Yet it shouldn't be surprising: Gorbachev was cultivated by former KGB head Yuri Andropov; Yeltsin learned everything about faking and controlling democracy from Gorbachev; and Yeltsin hand-picked the KGB agent Vladimir Putin, who has since made a point to honor Andropov and rehabilitate Gorbachev, not simply to succeed him, but to carry on and perfect the strain of fake democracy developed by Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

It is a special brand of hyper-Machiavellian politics which is described this way by a Ukrainian analyst: "Western observers are looking for attributes of, or departures from, normal democratic procedure. But our elections are different. The big falsification is the falsification of the whole electoral process, the falsification of almost all the participants in that process. There are no real political subjects, no real independent political actors. ...[M]ost parties are only the creation of various donors looking for a suitable facade."

And again: "The overall 'aim is not only to establish a monopoly of power but also to monopolize competition for it.'"

One thing that makes Virtual Politics such a fun read is Wilson's barely-concealed hard-on for what can only be called "Machiavelli Porn." The Russian actors in this barbaric political drama differ from their Western counterparts both in their open, self-conscious cynicism (as opposed to the wildly hypocritical, half-deluded cynicism of Western political players) and in their degree of cynicism - as always, the Russians are maximilists in everything they do. "The labels that politicians use to describe themselves are taken up or discarded as opportunities arise for enrichment and access to power," Wilson explains. "Russian political parties are defined not by a common ideology, but by a 'common source of income.'"

The Russian elite who set up and benefits from this system are "totally de-ideologized, 'relatively uninterested in governing,' preferring to concentrate on the 'exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth... a 'historyless elite' with no ties to its own past except its traditional disdain for the masses from which it may itself have sprung.'"

Cynicism and amorality on this scale have been chic among the West's avant-garde artists for nearly a century now, working its way down to popular culture over the past 20 years. And yet nothing quite prepares the Western reader for Russia's degree of cynicism portrayed in this book, which is too real, too unaffected, devoid of limits and even a hint of conscience. There are no redeemable characters - which is what is so impressive and attractive, and yet so horrifying for the queasy/pious Western observer.

While Western journalists and politicians bleat about Putin's media crackdown, symbolized by the expulsion of NTV media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and the expropriation of his holdings, in reality it was Gusinsky more than anyone who was responsible for first co-opting, and then destroying, Russia's nascent free press. Wilson quotes Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlvosky: "Russia's first privatization had nothing to do with Chubais. It was the press and TV." The press was handed over to oligarch power-brokers, who in turn used the media to advance their own interests, which were masked by fake brands: "By the late 1990s...each 'holding' in the media-political system pushed a slightly different virtual reality as 'branding' cover for the pursuit of its own interests: Vladimir Gusinskii residual liberalism, Yurii Luzhkov Slavic Orthodoxy. Under Putin a more unified message of Kremlin nationalism has been established."

Why is the Russian press more unified now? Is it because Yeltsin was a democrat at heart, and was fooled by the wily Putin? According to another powerful Kremlin spin doctor, Marat Gelman, "Some say there was freedom of speech under Yeltsin, but not under Putin. But Yeltsin wanted to put the press more under his control than it was. He just didn't have a mandate from the they have it. They can do anything."

Part of the problem has also been calibrating this desire, from Gorbachev through Putin, to control and manipulate everything in the political sphere while trying to appear democratic enough to the West. "A step to the left, in the direction of repressions, could cause severe international sanctions; a step to the right, in the direction of insufficient repression, could lead to the loss of power and, it cannot be excluded, [eventual] juridicial sanctions in the country itself...None of them ever knows the minimal amount of violations necessary: whether they should close tens of opposition publications, or hundreds, kill a few journalists or more than ten, limit car accidents to [just] one leader of the opposition or...allow a little provocation with a hand grenade."

* * *

The elite maintains power both by the manipulation of perception - Western and domestic - and by so-called "administrative resources," a term which Wilson rightly attacks: "Apart from 'ethnic cleansing,' there is no more widespread or dangerous euphemism in the post-Communist world...Fraud is fraud. Cheating is cheating."

The crudest administrative resource is electoral fraud, which was employed far more egregiously under Yeltsin than under Putin, but which the West just got religious about in the past few years, as Putin steered Russia on a more independent course.

The most blatant example of electoral fraud, and the most grossly underreported in the Western press, came in 1993, when Yeltsin padded the results in the vote on the Russian Constitution. It didn't pass. The Constitution to this day is invalid. A full one-eighth of the votes were added by the Kremlin to pass the Constitution - but ironically, since the vote was on the same day as the Duma elections, those extra seven million votes had to be added to a Duma party list, which, due to the regions where the vote was padded, wound up disproportionately benefiting Vladimir Zhirinovsky's fake-fascist LDPR party.

In the 1995 Duma elections, according to Wilson, 12 million votes were added. And in the 1996 presidential elections, Zyuganov actually beat Yeltsin, but he was afraid to win - so he stepped aside as 10 million votes were added to give Yeltsin his victory. All of these elections were lauded by everyone from the OSCE to analysts like Michael McFaul and the Clinton Administration as "free and fair elections." Yet it was this election that Wilson labeled "the campaign by which all others are now measured."

Interestingly, the level of outright vote-padding under Putin has been far less than that under Yeltsin, yet only Putin has come under harsh criticism from the West. Now do you see why the Russians are so paranoid about their "unfair bad image"?

Another key weapon in the electoral-fraud arsenal developed under Yeltsin was bribery. Bribery on a scale not yet imagined. Yeltsin's "free and fair" victory in 1996 cost up to $2 billion dollars - compared to the $529 million the US presidential elections cost in 2000.

Bribery works not just in elections, but in the operation of the Duma. Wilson cites a $200 million off-budget Kremlin "presidential fund" used to keep Duma deputies voting the right way.

The political parties themselves are fakes, branding themselves "liberal," "nationalist," "statist," and whatever else is convenient and effective, with little or no regard given to ideology, only to business and power interests. One of the funniest examples of this is the Green Party of Ukraine, a marginal movement until it was bought out by shady/scary biznesmeni, catapulting it to win 5.4 percent of the vote in 1998. The sponsors kept the Greens' leader, Vitalii Kononov, "with his plausible ponytail," as the hippie "face of the party," but Kononov sold his party list off to representatives from the metallurgy, energy, oil and military-industrial complex, not exactly your typical raft-protestor types. The man behind the man who funded the Greens was Vadym Rabinovych, a media and business mogul and Israeli citizen who was accused of selling over 200 tanks, 200 APCs and thirty light aircraft to the Taliban along with reputed Mafia leader Semion Mogilevich.

Nothing is what it seems, including the last big PR heist that the West bought: "Khodorkovskii was ... busily promoting 'liberal' business and open accounting standards (more exactly, promoting a PR myth about such standards) that were anathema to the siloviki...He was also funding the 'opposition.' How big a crime this was is not clear, as the opposition wasn't really in opposition."

* * *

The book makes for eye-opening, at times hilarious, at other times stunning reading, because Wilson relishes the most vile details about Russian and CIS politics. But unfortunately, Wilson does have his faults and his prejudices - namely, the prejudices of his readers, and of his guild. The most obvious, and painful of these, is the unconvincing use of dated Critical Theory terminology to give some kind of academic validity to his rather straightforward potboiler tale of political intrigue. Sure, dropping that fool Baudrillard's name might have been necessary to get the book published - but it makes for some cringing reading moments early on. Thankfully, most of the post-modern terminology and name-dropping fades out about 1/5 of the way into the book.

A deeper problem is Wilson's righteous message. The Russians come off as utter barbarians, a unique scourge to our global village. The conspicuous absence of any comparison to Western political and PR manipulations - for example, how the United States uses its various "administrative resources" to manipulate democracies everywhere in the world and at home - is simply not brought up, or is slyly dismissed with more Baudrillardian nonsense, such as when he labels Schwartzenegger's style of politics "narrative politics," as opposed to Russia's "virtual politics." Right, that answers that.

What's worse, Wilson depicts the poor Western Russia observer/politician as Innocents Abroad, well-meaning but credulous fools, instead of the cynical, cruel manipulators competing for power and influence under the flag of democracy and free markets. In the 90s, America played incredibly rough here. We wanted Russia's resources and geostrategic acquiescence, even if it meant impoverishing the entire population to do it. If as much energy and sourcing about America's political manipulations in Russia was applied, the book would be filled with the same sort of savage black humor, with the US as chief villain: massive bribery (via IMF/World Bank Funds and CIA bagmen, as well as the strange 100-dollar-note conversion which the eXile wrote about in 1998), covert and overt support of friendly politicians, complex PR campaigns, threats, and so on.

But that would complicate the facile moral picture. Instead, Wilson sticks to false dichotomies: between "real" politics and "virtual"; between a generally well-meaning West and the limitless cynicism of the Russians; between Yuschenko/ Timoschenko, both of whom he defends by way of not only not exposing their own cruel/corrupt virtual politics, but by attacking anyone who raises their shady sources of finance and power, applying his "virtual politics detector" only against Yuschenko's critics. Yet to his credit, Wilson is not as kind to Russia's liberals, whom he rightly exposes for their cynicism and corruption. Oddly enough Wilson singles out Edward Limonov's National-Bolshevik Party as one of the only examples of a "real" political party.

Wilson is also too enamored of his own thesis, to the point of myopia. He believes his own bullshit too deeply: that the entire surface of Russian politics is a 180-degree lie, as if every effect or event is the direct, planned result of a conspiracy hatched by his political technology heroes. What he fails to take into account is "real" Russian culture - i.e. Gogol, see under... As a former high-placed Russian friend of mine once said when we were theorizing about why the Kremlin pulled one of its stunts, "Vsyo gorazdo prosche" - "everything's a lot more simple than you think." Incompetence has no place in Wilson's virtual-theory because it would diminish the "real" role of his political technologists and Kremlin manipulators. Yet discounting the huge role incompetence plays in Russian governance would be like omitting the role that insane optimism and The Book of Revelations plays in America.

Unfortunately Wilson can't admit to the porn-entertainment value that his Russian villains provide to his narrative, which is a shame because the closer he comes to enjoying it, the better the book gets. At times he strains to conceal a lustful admiration for the Russians' boundless cynicism, yet at other moments, he has an unconcealed hatred of Russia. He has spent too much time with his beloved Orange Ukrainians, and no Orange-symp could view the Russians as anything but amoral, venal, heartless savages.

In the end, this is the book's fundamental flaw: Wilson debunks one false dialectic, that of the surface world of electoral politics versus the real world of manipulation and "fake democracy," of the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in Russian politics... Only to replace it with an even easier, emptier fake "moral" dialectic that Wilson and his Western audience take for granted: the good, well-meaning, innocent West versus the savage, corrupt, cynical Russia; good Orange democrats versus immoral Russian-poisoned Blue Ukrainians; "narrative politics" in the US, which is excusable, versus "virtual politics" in Russia; "our cynicism," which is bad but not that bad, and "their cynicism," which is "a different matter," to quote Wilson's expression. Wilson doesn't bother backing these prejudices up. They simply are taken as major premises. So that in the end, this book becomes yet another cleverly-concealed piece of propaganda designed to reinforce its Western readers' sense of moral superiority. Maybe this is why someone as unlikely as Michael McFaul, whose entire work in the 1990s and 2000s is discredited by this book, could pen a glowing review of it in the Moscow Times without blinking.

Yet Virtual Politics is extremely valuable precisely because it is so heavily, mercilessly one-sided. It is, in a way, the most Russian book that a native English-speaker has written about Russian politics, and it comes, I would guess, from Wilson's years hanging out with conspiracy-minded insiders and former insiders in Ukrainian-Russian politics.

So if you want to know how to watch the recent Moscow City Duma elections, or how to watch the upcoming elections in 2007 and 2008, buy this book. Or if you just want to read some porn, this has it. You will never look at Russian politics - or at the West's gullible, pious take on Russia-the same again.

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