Johnson’s Russia List, 4 March 2003
Is the US foreign policy totally naive, suffering from gross oversimplifications, or is it exceptionally cynical? I would like to discuss two examples of the logic that is profoundly flawed. It starts with wishful thinking, and then goes on to present the “logical consequences” of these impossible assumptions as “facts”.
Here is how it goes. Pay close attention to the argument as you may just be able to pinpoint the flaw in my logic:
Elephant is a very nice animal. But it suffers badly from poachers. Elephant is also exceptionally smart, much smarter than a pigeon. And pigeons can fly. Therefore, elephant should fly away from the poachers. But can an African elephant fly as far as America, wounded by poachers and suffering from malnutrition as it is? Now, that won’t be that easy, with the underdeveloped and untrained wings that the elephant has: But then, America is a beacon of freedom. Thus, the elephant will be able to do what only recently seemed barely possible! And we welcome the African elephants here with open arms. We have already prepared 100,000 tons of emergency elephant chow in the African elephants’ new home, a ranch in Wisconsin. All is ready for their arrival!
Wild, ain’t it? Yet, I submit to you that this description closely corresponds to the speech President Bush recently gave at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), justifying the coming occupation of Iraq. Those of us who follow the painful transformation of Russia, should be able to tell Bush: however desirable a democracy may be, transformation to it is a painful and non-linear process that carries significant risks and no guarantee of success. Certainly, Russia is not a proof that America knows how to help another country to become democratic.
Bush starts his AEI speech with some correct assumptions: Saddam is a tyrant, he helps terrorists, he may possess weapons of mass destruction, he is anti-American, and he is the worst foe that Iraqi people have ever had. Agreed. Therefore, Saddam must be removed. Agreed. And in his stead there should be a democracy in Iraq, so that Iraq may serve as a beacon of freedom for the entire Muslim world, and especially for the democratic and peaceful Palestinian state. What? Say that again, I did not hear you as the elephants were clapping their wings too loud.
Democracy is a dictatorial social system that forces people (in theory, at least) to be nice and fair to one another. And what if they do not want that or are unable to survive under these conditions? Please admit that this happens a lot.
Let’s take the United States, which genuinely is the land of opportunity. How many US citizens freely choose the life of crime, how many of them are addicts, how many are functionally illiterate, how many spend their days actually listening to rap music? How can we say that these people chose for themselves what was better, even though they did have free choice? No, they chose to self-destruct, to commit suicide, to gauge their eyes out and lop off their ears, so that they would not see or hear anything worth knowing. Please note that America has an enormously profitable, huge entertainment industry that specifically caters to those who seek to fail.
Almost all adults can use a hammer, but only one millionth of one percent of adults can be astronauts. As opportunities increase, so does the dropout rate. As we develop a democratic system of government, resistance to democracy stiffens, and people find a way to drop out, to shut it off, to get away - or to fight what they see as a great threat. In Russia, fifty years after his death, Stalin is still universally loved by those whose grandparents he just did not have time to torture to death. President Bush, what do you say to that? How does it fit the picture you are painting?
The very fact that President Bush was able to express such naive, linear, wishy-washy ideas proves that he is wrong: he is preaching to an audience that had freely chosen to be utterly ignorant, to people who did not use the opportunity to learn history when it was presented to them. A highly developed civil society may sway away from democracy, as Germany, Japan, or Italy once did. But to say that an underdeveloped society can build a genuine democracy is tantamount to saying that a hammer-wielding plumber can pilot a spaceship. This assumption denies the need for the enormous amount of work that must be done to build a civil society, work that may take several generations.
In its AEI speech President Bush has set an agenda for “Democratic Earth in our Lifetime”, an agenda that is utterly improbable and will be soundly defeated. This agenda denies and ignores human history, the long and painful journey that some pioneering human societies took, over several centuries, to tentatively and conditionally proclaim that win/win just may, after all, be the best method of human interaction.
But of course there is a way to build democracy anywhere, and to build it fast. This can be accomplished through the magic of renaming, and the only requirement here is to have an ignorant audience. This brings us to our second example.
The latest Forbes Magazine list of the world’s wealthiest individuals contains 17 Russian billionaires. Now, that is a surprise. I thought Russia has no private property. It certainly has never had a concept of private property throughout its 1000-year-old history. Instead, Russia had a concept of an informal personal connection to power, and that connection would indeed bring temporary and conditional use of property. What has changed? Why suddenly we see 17 obscure Russians joining the Rockefeller club?
Now, that is an interesting topic for the Forbes Magazine to investigate. Interesting, but politically inadvisable. Private property is a foundation of democracy, and it is now politically correct to call Russia a democracy. So, let there be 17 individual billionaires.
But even a brief look at the situation would reveal all that we wanted to hide: an incredible concentration of power in the hands of a few, apparently appointed and hand-picked individuals, a one-party system, a voiceless and deprived populace, and no democracy (or genuine private property) at all. This is how successful we were in building a democracy in Russia, ten years down the road, and there is no guarantee that we will be any more successful in Iraq.
When we look at the list of Russian billionaires, three things pop out immediately.
One. Forbes Magazine knows that there is such a thing as a Declaration of Trust. Declaration of Trust is what you give your driver to sign, and it says, “I will pose as a rightful owner, but I do hereby unconditionally assign all that I own to the person whose name appears below”. Forbes notes one Russian billionaire, a 36-year old orphan named Roman Abramovich is thought to be “a purse of the Yeltsin’s family”. Now, are they saying to us that Abramovich may not be a real billionaire? Are they saying that the real billionaire is the dear friend of Al Gore, the builder of Russian democracy? No, no, no. Let there be Roman Abramovich, a nice looking young orphan billionaire. Another example. One Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Now, I want you to laugh. Here is what Forbes is saying about the guy, “A former plastics engineer, his business career took off when his close friend Yuri Luzhkov became mayor of Moscow in 1992. Transformed his municipal Committee for Science and Technology into a commercial enterprise, gained access to lucrative government contracts, real estate and capital.” Yevtushenkov is said to be worth $1.5B, while Luzhkov apparently survives on a $5K a year mayor’s salary. What an ingrate, this Yevtushenkov, one just hopes that he brings to Luzhkov’s starving family some food once in a while.
Being ideological, the Forbes is “funny” when it can be, and when in cannot be it is simply falls silent. There are more billionaires in Russia, and they are very well known, but some of them have biographies that would not look good in a glossy magazine, and so they are omitted altogether.
Another thing is Forbes’ sudden inability to count. Take the TNK billionaire, Viktor Vekselberg, as an example. TNK has recently bought, for $1.8B, an asset that is worth at least $6B. Seeing that, BP paid $6.5B for TNK shares. On the basis of this deal, Forbes made an estimate of Vekselberg’s fortune. But one’s fortune is one’s assets minus one’s liabilities, and I suspect there is one liability here that has not been taken into account. How do you buy something that is worth $6B for mere $1.8B? Well, one answer is that Russian bureaucrats earn $5K per year, do not speak English, have no internet access; in one word, they are too stupid to know better, and so they sell things very cheap, rejecting some higher offers out of sheer lack of comprehension. This is the answer that Forbes apparently favors. But there is another answer as well. When you buy a state asset, the money goes into the state budget, and consequently some of this money risk ending up building schools, paying for medical supplies, and otherwise being wasted on ordinary Russian citizens. There is a better solution. The elections are coming, and the Presidential Administration needs a discretionary fund. Between the $6B and a $1.8B there is some figure. Admittedly, this figure is less, probably much less, than $4.2B, but it is still significant, and you will be expected to contribute it to a certain privately held fund. We will recall that the Chinese National Oil Company also was interested in the asset that TNK ended up getting, but that the Chinese were politely asked to withdraw their bid. Obviously, there are national security and geopolitical considerations, but another reason may well be that it was inconvenient to ask the Chinese to contribute to the discretionary fund. And that may mean that Mr. Vekselberg actually has a slightly smaller fortune than it appears to Forbes, while some Russian bureaucrats are slightly wealthier than their salaries would suggest.
Three. Other billionaires are so politically connected that it is better to say as little as possible about them. It appears that Forbes is conducting a “clean money” campaign. Where is Boris Berezovsky, where are Mikhail and Lev Chernoy? Have they fallen on hard times? I have my doubts.
Again, as each of these three points clearly indicate, Russia still does not have private business separate from political connections, and thus is not a true democratic state.
I am alarmed that we are getting such a simplified and beautified a picture of the world and that we are going to war, having such a picture painted for us. I suspect that those who paint such a picture are no simpletons.