Thursday, June 26, 2014

The closing of borders and of minds

The latest repressive measures instituted by Vladimir Putin includes wholesale travel bans on millions of Russian citizens. As in the Soviet times, foreign travel is to be made difficult and expensive. Anyone with any contacts overseas is suspect, and the smell of treachery is a miasma over anyone foolish enough to speak out against the mafia regime. Those who believe in a different, more open way for Russia are now themselves seeking to leave, before it is too late.

The lie machine of Russian State propaganda has stepped up its twisting of the truth and indeed there is now significant evidence that the KGB apparatus of bugs, wiretaps and snooping- which dwarfs anything in the West- is being used to discredit those who oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. The open season unleashed on the leaders of Poland is being openly spoken of as an act of Russian political aggression against the fiercely anti-Putin government in Warsaw.

So far, so unsurprising. Russia is using unconventional means, but its aggressive goals are all too conventional and familiar to those who have studied the KGB. Yet the fact is that the mental health of the Putin regime has now all but collapsed in the face of its own incompetence, violence and paranoia. Brutal, cynical and useless, the Russian state apparatus can no longer bear to look at itself in the mirror of Western scorn. Instead of opening up, Russia is closing, withdrawing and weakening still further. They now regard the Internet as a point of weakness and many senior Russian leaders are forbidden from using email. It may be more secure, but it is also far less efficient. Yet close minded paranoia dictates that security is everything.

As the Russian education system drifts and the country falls into the second division in the international rankings, the closing of Russia's borders is being matched by a closing of Russian minds. It is a fatal process that ultimately can only lead to collapse. I have often wondered that if Russia is structurally incapable of becoming free, then perhaps it would be better for the country to break up, at least giving the component parts of the Empire the chance to create open, creative and wealthy societies. The three million people of Mongolia are clearly in a happier and increasingly more prosperous place than those nations like Buryatia or Tuva that have remained a part of the Russian Imperium. Of course it directly feeds Russian fears to say so, but as Putin repeats the failures of his Czarist predecessors, it seems clear to me that the process of collapse identified one hundred years ago in What is to be Done? is still on-going, and was merely delayed by the modern dress Imperialism of Soviet Socialism.

What a sharp contrast there now is between outward looking and increasingly open China (albeit also increasingly assertive) and the darkening closure of Russia. The Chinese government, for all its faults, has an open and modernizing agenda which makes sense, the Russian government relies on greater theft, greater criminality and greater paranoia. 

As the West shakes itself free of Russian energy dependency, and as they seek to counter the unconventional war that Putin has launched against western democratic values, the international influence of the Kremlin will decline. Isolated and internationally hated, Putin has set a course that will lead to failure.

Thirty years ago I was told that support for the "Captive Nations" was a "lost cause". Now I am being told that Putin is- like the USSR- an unassailable fact of life. In fact I am more convinced that ever that in time the path Putin has followed will utterly destroy his Empire. Unless Russia can provide freedom and opportunity to its myriad national citizens, then it serves no purpose, save to be the "prison of nations". History shows that this is not a position that can be sustained in the long term. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

China and the Meaning of Freedom

I have recently visited China. It was not, strictly speaking, my first trip to the Middle Kingdom, since I visited Shenzhen last year and have visited Hong Kong twice before. However, it was certainly the first time to visit the heartland of China- Ningbo in the Yangtze delta and Beijing. I had always felt somewhat reluctant to visit an officially still Communist state, since Soviet Socialism remains in my mind the moral equal of National Socialism. Both systems embody a contempt for the individual, whether that contempt is manifest as race hatred or class hatred is rather beside the point. Of course I was aware that Deng Xiaoping had ended the most egregious repression, and have written on this blog that the arrest of the Gang of Four was an act of liberation in its way as powerful as the fall of the Berlin wall. Nevertheless I had rather ambivalent feelings as I boarded the flight to Beijing.

The first thing to say about China is that it is now in many ways a highly advanced country. The images of thousands of bicycles and party cadres in Mao suits is as hopelessly out of date as Capitalists in stovepipe hats. Beijing now looks like Los Angeles, only cleaner, better planned and more modern. It is a city of cars, and of new highways. The statistics speak of hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty, and the reality is, if anything, even more impressive. Modern China is as advanced as anywhere in the world. Of course the economic numbers still speak of uneven and incomplete progress, but in the vast and burgeoning cities at least, the impact of huge and well educated populations speaks of a genuinely emerging powerhouse. Of course such power carries with it growing pains: once the price advantage of cheaper Chinese labour carried all before it; now the more complicated geometry of competitive advantage is leading to some industries leaving China, while others are refocusing their investments. Yet far from speaking of Chinese decline, these changes speak of emerging opportunities as the economy matures and develops. Higher value added and new technology, together with an immense investment in physical and human infrastructure, through education, is permanently strengthening the economic and social structure of the country.

The rise of the Chinese educated elite is, perhaps the most impressive thing about the country today. Unlike the cynical anti-intellectualism that is the stock-in-trade of the UK, and to a degree the USA, China genuinely believes in the power of knowledge. Education is the imperative for success and in a way the social disruption of the bloodbath of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution has reset Chinese society- purging society of the bureaucratic obscurantism that was the cause of national weakness for centuries. Nevertheless, the process of political change is on a different time scale compared to the rapid economic and social change and it is clear that there are now significant friction points. 

China's leaders, however, still deeply fear the instability that tore apart the country after the fall of the Manchu dynasty. No matter what their vision for the future, the contending forces inside the Chinese Communist Party value order and stability above all. And of course there ARE contending forces in the Party. The late Zhao Ziyang, a former Prime Minister, deposed after the Tian-an-men protests of 1989, in his memoirs, smuggled out of the country after his death, was convinced that the future for his country should include Parliamentary democracy, while others speak for a neo-Maoist centralised state. In fact the high organs of the Party navigate a kind of centre ground, neither abandoning repression nor utterly crushing freedom of expression. The atmosphere, however, that I found was one where great changes are in the offing. The private frustration over corruption has a limited official sanction for discussions in the media, but this public forum is inadequate to the task. The fact is that, privately, much of the public conventional wisdom is openly derided. There is a real sense that the Party is now becoming a brake on Chinese progress, and not- as before- its agent. More pluralist ideas are the common place of individual discussion and the public discussion about corruption, environmental degradation, poisons in the food chain and so on telegraphs much greater questions about the legitimacy of the Party.

Yet the Party cadres clearly know this, and indeed many of them indeed support more democratic openness. In a sense the central bodies are reluctant to impose too great restrictions, partly because they fear a backlash, but also because many do them simply do not believe in repression. This was what I did not expect: the political establishment of China is itself already far more diverse and pluralist than its public face would make you believe. The discussion is not about whether political changes are coming, but rather how far reaching these changes should be.

One evening our delegation was taken to a karaoke bar, and in a private room, we relaxed and got to know our hosts for the evening. Drinking contests were had, and hopefully we did not lose too much face, even as we sang different songs. One of our hosts selected a song: George Michael's catchy "Freedom". We came to the chorus, but only the backing words were shown, nevertheless we sang the magic words "Freedom, Freedom, you've got to give for what you take". At the end our host looked me in the eye and in the old Soviet way that I remember so well, he knew I knew. We said nothing, but I gained a very large bear hug in return.

China is not free. Yet the power of Freedom is strong and I think there is a deep and powerful wish in the country to open up society and the political life of the country to match the unquestioned economic development. If Taiwan or (South) Korea can emerge from authoritarianism I think China can too. After all the great achievements since 1976 rest upon the end of the evils of Maoist totalitarianism and the emergence of a system that was merely authoritarian. 

What could China not achieve if it could make a peaceful leap from authoritarianism towards a democratic system?

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Rewriting History

There is an interesting article by Michael Weiss in Foreign Affairs pointing out the ongoing contest between Russia and Estonia. What is interesting is not so much the Estonian response to Russian spying, but just how intense the competition has become. At the same time comes reports of possible confrontations in space and hostile interceptions by Russian air force planes in the Black Sea and the Sea of Japan.

The Cold War is back with a vengeance.

Russia, having crushed the free media at home has also orchestrated an information war where seemingly large numbers of cybertrolls are unleashed on any commentary that challenges the Russian media narrative. A good example are the comments on Simon Heffer's brimstone filled condemnation of Putin being present at the D-Day commemoration in France. This is organised and orchestrated astroturfing. It is a brutal and deeply unpleasant corruption of free speech.

As I have often written, the hostility of Vladimir Putin's Russia towards the West is uncompromising and implacable. Yet still there are those who, for their own short sighted reasons, do not register the extreme danger emanating from the Kremlin. Whether it is the French who are still willing to sell offensive weapons to Russia, or the property and financial specialists in London who are still eager to prostitute themselves to the highest bidder, irrespective of morality and sometimes even law.

Nevertheless, the reality in Russia is now extremely bleak. Having captured the levers of the Russian state, the mafia regime is simply unable to address catastrophic problems that beset Russian society. The creaking infrastructure and low levels of investment are seeing whole swathes of Russia facing an economic breakdown on a truly stunning scale. Now the threats of nationalization and confiscation of foreign assets have placed a premium on Russian risk that makes all but the most committed or most foolhardy blench. The result is a drastic acceleration of capital flight which is reversing years of careful husbanding and undermining the Kremlin attempts to use their war chest of reserves as a financial weapon. Putin has drastically accelerated expenditure on the armed forces, but even that can not begin to match the capabilities of the United States.

Yet Putin is a Judoka. He seriously intends to try to challenge the West by catching them off guard. He knows that a smaller player can still beat a bigger opponent, if he can use their weight against them. He thinks that he can create an alliance with China that will give him the power to move freely in Europe.

Yet his first attempts at a real agreement with the Chinese have cost him very dear. Although the Russian info-warriors hailed the Russo-Chinese gas deal as a Putinist triumph, a more detailed reading of the runes suggests something quite close to a Russian disaster. So desperate was Vladimir Putin to reach agreement in Shanghai, that his negotiating position was totally exposed and in short the Chinese drove a very hard bargain indeed. From a strategic point of view even a colossal discount to the price they sell gas to the Europeans was worth it. From a financial point of view it is insanity and this reckless politicking severely undermines the long term future of Gazprom.

Putin's contempt for the West does not make the West weaker, his hatred does not alter Russian weakness, and indeed it is now possible to see the trouble that Putin has stored up for the future could severely backfire on Moscow. As demonstrations in Abhazia challenge the Russian dominated order and the economic woes of Crimea grow more serious, the idea that the solution to Russia's problems involves taking over still more of other countries' territory grows patently absurd. The continuing support of the Donbas rebels has cut off all hope of any Russian rehabilitation in the international community, and the economic and financial position of Russia is eroding even more rapidly than was first forecast.

As the confrontation opens up more fronts from cyberspace to outer space, the sleazy and brutal regime in Moscow may find that, against determined opposition, even the most skilled Judoka can face a comprehensive and irrevocable defeat.

Monday, June 02, 2014

It is not yet over in Ukraine

The election of a new president in Ukraine is not the end of the crisis, but it does mark a point of change, and hopefully of improvement. The seizure of Crimea by Russia- in contravention of all international law and all promises given- has jolted the security position of NATO as almost nothing else could. Russia now insists that anywhere where the Russian or Soviet flag once flew may be a legitimate claim for Moscow. That in principle could mean Germany or Alaska. In practice it is still a threat to NATO, since the Kremlin claims thee right of intervention, whether or not any local Russian population survives, and regardless of that population supporting Russian intervention or not. Certainly it seems pretty clear that the Russian speaking population of the Donbass does not support the attempt by paramilitaries to transfer their home to Russian control. Nevertheless the Kremlin continues to seek a way to either control the Donbass directly or render it so unstable as to be beyond the control of the democratic government in Kyiv. 

Of course it is said that as Russian troops are withdrawn from the border, that they are seeking to deescalate the crisis. That, however remains to be seen, and the large number of mercenaries that are crossing the border to take up positions in Luhansk and Donetsk suggests simply a change of tactics, not a change of approach. The fact is that almost every public position taken by the Kremlin has ended up being denied by the facts. The credibility of Russia has been totally undermined by the simple lies told by their President.

In the end we have to note that Putin also cheated his way to the Presidency of his own country- with clear evidence of widespread voter fraud. He has led the "party of thieves and crooks" to vast ill gotten wealth- on a scale to make even Yanukovych blush. The regime does not even obey its own laws and the rights of individual citizens mean nothing compared to the rights of those connected to the regime. The rule of Vladimir Putin has ended free speech and on virtually every objective measure Russia can not be called a free country. The contempt for international law is simply another facet of the nature of the regime.

The point is that a democratic Ukraine is very clearly not in the interests of undemocratic Russia, and the seizure of Crimea and the attempted seizure of the Donbass is a pure play of Russian chauvinism. Some, especially those in London or Zurich who benefit from Russian funds flow or Paris, who benefit from Russian arms purchases will try either to downplay the actions of the Kremlin or to baldly state there is little that we can do. In fact such self interested twaddle is dangerous: the risks involved in not confronting the Russian threat until it is too late is much higher than recognizing and responding to the criminal regime in Moscow now. So unless the Russia takes actions to cool the situation in the Donbass immediately, then sanctions should not be abandoned in any way. In fact they should be increased.