We Have Always Been At War With Eastasia... And Czar Putin
Last night CNN reported that Obama vowed retaliatory action against Russia for its meddling in the US presidential election. Right on top of that, Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, declared Putin the richest man/kleptocrat on earth and that U.S. intelligence services are preparing to hit him in his pocketbook. Yesterday even Fox admitted to their brain-dead viewers that the Russians hacked the U.S. election.
Obama to NPR, also last night: "I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections that we need to take action and we will at a time and place of our own choosing." Obama says he confronted Putin about the interference in the U.S. electoral process and that American "countermeasures" in his final weeks in office could be partly explicit and publicized and partly secret.
Let's go back and look at a review of Karen Dawisha's 20014 book, Putin's Kleptocracy-- Who Owns Russia?. Having just spent some time in Russia this past summer I can vouch for the veracity of the assertion that the general feeling-- at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg-- that Putin is generally accepted as he presents himself: "the strong and virtuous leader who rescued Russia from the chaos, corruption, penury and weakness of the 1990s." I would add he is also viewed as the strong and virtuous leader who protects Russia from the encroachments of the predatory West. When she wrote it, no one imagined that Donald Trump might model a U.S. presidency on a modified Putin model.
State-controlled news media and Kremlin spin doctors disseminate this message diligently-- and to good effect, judging from Putin’s 80 percent approval rating. But with Putin’s Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha, a respected scholar of Soviet and Russian politics at Miami University in Ohio, seeks to shred this carefully constructed narrative.Wondering what role the Exxon T-Rex guy played in all this? Do you think Lindsey Graham is going to get to the bottom of it for us? And, by the way, do you think Vladimir Putin may have earned $85 billion for himself through honest hard work in his spare time since taking over Russia?
Her verdict is not merely that Putin’s boast of having built a potent, efficient state that fights for the little guy and against the venality of the powerful is bunk. Her bedrock claims are that the essential character of Putin’s system is colossal corruption and that he is a prime beneficiary. The thievery, she says, has made him fabulously rich, along with a coterie of trusted friends dating back to his days as a K.G.B. officer in Communist East Germany, then as first deputy mayor in 1990s St. Petersburg, then as head of the Federal Security Service.
In explaining the system’s workings, Dawisha enumerates the standard shenanigans of crooked regimes: bribetaking from domestic and foreign companies seeking business permits; kickbacks from inflated no-bid contracts for state projects; privatization deals rigged to enrich cronies who will later be cash cows for the Kremlin; illicit exports of raw materials purchased at state-subsidized prices and sold for a killing; “donations” from oligarchs eager to keep feeding at the government’s trough; real estate scams yielding mega-profits and palatial homes; money laundering; election-fixing; labyrinthine offshore accounts; lucrative partnerships with the mob; and the intimidation, even elimination, of would-be whistle-blowers.
To prosper, Russia’s superrich must demonstrate absolute loyalty to the president. As Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other tycoons have discovered, the punishment for defiance is severe.
Dawisha won’t disappoint readers seeking examples of industrial-size sleaze. She reckons Putin’s private wealth at $40 billion and lists among his prized possessions yachts, planes and palaces-- along with a $700,000 wristwatch collection for good measure. As for the Friends of Vladimir, Dawisha writes that “more than half of the $50 billion spent on the Sochi Olympics simply disappeared into the pockets of Putin’s cronies.” The Rotenberg brothers, Putin’s childhood chums, alone garnered $2.5 billion of the outlay for the games.
Russia’s roster of 110 billionaires remains remarkably static, even as the wealthy in other countries rise and fall. What these plutocrats share are longstanding, close connections to Putin. And not a few are former K.G.B. operatives themselves.
Dawisha’s charges are not entirely new: Her copiously researched account relies on books, news reports, official documents, memoirs, WikiLeaks and witness testimonies collected by Russian and foreign journalists. The torrent of detail, some of it well known and peripheral to her kleptocracy theme, can drown readers who are untutored in Soviet and Russian politics. Still, Putin’s Kleptocracy is the most persuasive account we have of corruption in contemporary Russia. Dawisha won’t be getting a Russian visa anytime soon. Her indictment-- even if it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law-- hits Putin where it really hurts.]
He may cop to being an authoritarian (he boasts of building a strong state), a nationalist (he wears a cross, preaches patriotism and praises the Orthodox Church) and an empire builder (he brags about retaking Crimea and is unapologetic about seeking a sphere of influence). But the accusation that he’s a common crook, or even an uncommon one, is different-- and a charge he doesn’t treat lightly. That’s why Russian reporters avoid it, especially as political controls have tightened, and why Dawisha’s original publisher, Cambridge University Press, declined to print the book on the advice of its lawyers worried about the possibility of legal action.
The true tragedy is that corruption, state-sponsored, energy-driven and totaling hundreds of billions annually, has mortgaged Russia’s future. Freedom has withered. Money for the investments urgently needed to make Russia innovative and prosperous has been diverted to enrich a few.
Alas, that’s what kleptocracies do.