Sunday, March 25, 2007

ETS in The Moscow Times

References to Ernest Thompson Seton show up in the oddest places, such as this commentary in The Moscow Times:

The Moscow Times (Russia)02-24-2004URL: naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton ascribed humanthoughts to the mustang; James Fenimore Cooper portrayed his Leatherstockingas a fashionable gentleman; and today Western intellectuals attempt tojudge how far Russia has progressed down the path of democracy during VladimirPutin's first term as president. Of them all, Seton was closest to themark. The problem arises when stock phrases and concepts are applied out ofcontext. There is an old Soviet joke about a Chukchi man in the northerntundra who encounters a group of geologists. He asks them what an orangeis like. The geologists, unsure how to describe an orange to someone whohas never seen one, reply that oranges are like sex. The Chukchi is satisfiedwith the answer. But what does he really know about oranges? Probably noless than the credit ratings agency Moody's knows about Russia. In his four years at the helm, Putin has neither steered Russia towardor away from democracy -- he has been operating in another dimension altogether.In the Soviet era, there arose dynasties of "caretakers" who controlledthe property of the state but never owned it and could not pass it on totheir heirs. In the late 1980s, these caretakers began to seize ownershipof their factories and companies. They were joined by the so- called youngreformers, both those, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Potanin andBoris Berezovsky, who had previously worked within the Soviet system, andthe kingpins of the semi-criminal Soviet black market. To Our ReadersHas something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited,puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage? Then pleasewrite to us. All we ask is that you include your full name, the name ofthe city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in casewe need to get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you. Email the Opinion Page Editor The general public, fed on myths and theexpectation of miracles, remained mute and submissive spectators, especiallyafter 1993, when hundreds of people fed up with the catastrophic declineof their standard of living were gunned down by tanks and special forcestroops. When he assumed de facto power in August 1999, Putin set about tryingto bring order to the system that he had inherited, to make it more durableand manageable. But the system itself, in essence, remained the same: acentralized feudal state. The role of feudal lords is played by governors and big businessmen towhom the president grants the land and/or entire industries that they "feedoff" or build their business empires on. In exchange, the lords furnishthe Kremlin with their loyalty and with resources: financial (not onlyin the form of taxes), electoral and so on. On the governors' home turf and within the oligarchs' corporations,they wield absolute power. There is no independent judiciary, no representativedemocracy and there are no institutions of civil society whatsoever. Noindependent press or even an independent church can threaten them. Putin not only strengthened his hold over the feudal lords, he alsostrengthened their hold on power in the regions and in the economy. Thisprocess began under Boris Yeltsin, but in the 1990s rivalries between thelords created an impression of pluralism because of feudal fragmentation(you had oligarchs pitted against governors, governors against the mayorsof big cities, etc.). Putin "appointed" as the victors of the various conteststhose who would have triumphed in any case, but now they owe the presidenta debt of gratitude. The Putin regime's only innovation was to begin getting rid ofdisloyal lords. The arrest of Khodorkovsky is a case in point, and typicallyit has nothing to do with the market, democracy or anything along thoselines. Predictably, the power structure in Moscow is similar to that in thefiefs. Consolidation of the "federal" authorities is taking place, withdiscipline and order being bolstered. The courts, renowned for their dispensationof justice to all and sundry on a per-fee basis, increasingly deny accessto a whole range of cases, citing the oversight role played by the FSB.On the whole, the institution of corruption in Russia has becomeclearer and more straightforward during Putin's first term. The corruptiontax is a known quantity, no cause for alarm. Bribe-takers generally fulfilltheir obligations to the bribe-givers. This system doesn't really meritthe label of corruption, since in feudal society the practice of gettingfat off one's position and home territory is absolutely normal, prestigiousand patriarchal. It should provoke no outrage -- of the moral variety atany rate. State Duma deputies, who used to sell their votes on a retail basis,are now mobilized wholesale. The Federation Council, once a hotbed of rebelliouslords, was crushed early in Putin's reign and is now little more than acollection of mini-embassies whose task is to provide constant proof ofthe lords' loyalty (and to do a little lobbying on the side). Not long ago, the oligarchs used their financial clout to installministers in the cabinet. Now the presidential administration has the finalsay and money plays a secondary role. Until recently, the military top brass in Chechnya were lining theirpockets as and when they could, slowly turning into a business corporationof generals. But now the process is strictly supervised: Defense MinisterSergei Ivanov, a personal friend and trusted ally of the president, keepsan eye on the army. Putin, as in other spheres, is not looking for a majorbreakthrough here -- just control of the situation. For the army, which since tsarist times has despised "politicalgendarmes," having one at the helm is not great, of course; but on theother hand, Ivanov is not repressing the generals -- he's just keepinga beady eye on them and assessing their loyalty. The army just conducteda major military exercise to test its readiness to fight a third worldwar and in that scenario Russia promptly lost, but that's OK so long asthe army remains loyal to the sovereign. It used to be the case that the press would compete to get storiesfirst, and it covered everything, because if Berezovsky's television stationdidn't report something, Vladimir Gusinsky's would. In the kaleidoscopeworld of the feudal information wars, the situation changed so quicklythat even the journalists on the front line didn't fully understand whatwas happening. Now order has been imposed here as well. Putin answeredhis subjects' questions for hours during a recent live broadcast, and noone -- not a single person -- brought up the war in Chechnya. Everyoneseemed more interested in the president's new puppies. No one asked aboutKhodorkovsky, either -- but then again, he didn't whelp. And after therecent explosion in the Moscow metro, Rossia television channel kept quietabout the fact for several hours, apparently awaiting the green light fromabove. All these signs of the new feudal stability are cause for concern inthe West. But Russia's ruling elite dismisses all the talk about democracyin Washington and Strasbourg as a Western whim -- a peculiar rule of thegame that, like the rule against kicking and punching below the belt inboxing, merely reduces the effectiveness of potential cooperation. Moreover,such whims are seen as the manifestation of Western hypocrisy. And whilethe Russian elite is prepared to adopt Western political correctness aswindow-dressing, such hypocritical rituals (which, in the elite's view,merely conceal the universal drive for power and wealth) should not beallowed to obscure certain basic facts. 1) The West needs Russian resources; 2) it will be allowed to acquirethem only through Kremlin-appointed middlemen, such as Alfa Group PresidentMikhail Fridman, the middleman for BP; 3) these middlemen are Kremlin vassalsand can be replaced -- their relationship with the Kremlin is not somethingforeigners should stick their noses into; 4) no one will be allowed todo business in Russia based simply on the rules of the much- ballyhooed"free market"; 5) the methods used to achieve internal stability are theprerogative of Russia's rulers -- no outside interference will be tolerated.This system is easy to understand and actually very convenient. Justthink, you have arrived in a strange country and everything is new andconfusing; in fact, the country resembles a lunatic asylum. Calling onthe patients to stand up for their rights in this situation would be metwith incredulity. All you need to do is get to know the director of theasylum and he will assign someone to smooth the way for you. Once in awhile you may pity the patients, but don't overdo it: You came here tomake money, after all, didn't you? Yet even if you've come to Russia for no other reason than to make abuck, and even if your working relationship with the "director of the asylum"suits your purpose, you face very real dangers. These dangers arise from the huge disgruntled mass of Russians whoconsider themselves to be poor. They live inertly and almost without strongemotion. They are perfectly happy that Putin is whacking the "blacks" inthe Caucasus and the "Jewish oligarchs" in Moscow. These masses will notrise up on their own -- they will allow Putin to be their leader untilsuch time as new leaders take his place. And those new leaders very likelywill come from the ranks of the Russian middle class so beloved in theWest. They are just coming into being and their numbers are limited. Theyinhabit a semi-criminal world, paying backhanders to the local cops, firedepartment, bureaucrats et al. They keep their earnings off the books andlive without much hope of surviving to see another day. They hate the oligarchsand people from the Caucasus for entirely practical reasons. The oligarchsbuy off the government and don't even pay taxes, while the middle classespay both taxes and bribes, and are forced to register their companies underthe name of the local prefect's relative. People from the Caucasus, fortheir part, with their tight-knit ethno-corporate communities, have a hugeadvantage over the isolated and uncoordinated Russian small and medium-sizedbusinessmen. And Putin, consciously or unconsciously, is sending these people tacitsigns of approval by his policy in Chechnya, the incarceration of Gusinskyand then Khodorkovsky. Whatever the president may have had in mind, themiddle class interprets his actions as National Socialist and fascist innature. The middle class is the only section of the population capable ofbuilding the social institutions that Russia needs. Only the middle classis passionate enough in its desire to free itself from the yoke of thebureaucracy's feudal lords to mobilize the passive, abused masses. Butthe middle class is being led down a blind alley by a president who seemsconcerned with nothing but his own approval ratings. Sergei Dorenko contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.WORLDSOURCES ONLINE, INC.,

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