Streetwise Professor

January 24, 2015

Farewell, Mr. Cub

Filed under: History,Sports — The Professor @ 6:07 pm

Ernie Banks, AKA Mr. Cub, passed away last night on the cusp of his 84th birthday. He was a great ballplayer, and the kind of man who was rare at the time and almost non-existent today.

Banks was my first childhood sports idol, growing up as I did in a bleed blue Cubs household. His greatest years-and they were great-were centered on the year of my birth, so I didn’t see him at his prime. In 1958-1960, he lead the league in RBIs twice, home runs twice, and in one of those years (1958) led in both. He won back-to-back MVPs in ’58 and ’59. This was a remarkable achievement for two reasons. First, other all time greats, including Mays, Aaron, and Frank Robinson were active and in their primes, so the competition was intense. Second, the Cubs were horrible. It’s rare for a player on a last place team to win an MVP. He did it twice.

Although Banks was known for his hitting, he was also a Gold Glove winning shortstop with a good arm and decent range. He was truly a rare player, manning the most difficult defensive position while hitting for power. A Rod without the steroids (Ernie was rail thin, but man, those wrists and hands).

By the time I was cognizant of baseball, Banks had moved to first base because he had lost range at shortstop. He had become a complementary player, with Ron Santo and Billy Williams playing the leading roles on the team. He still hit for power, but didn’t put up the monster numbers like he did in the 50s.

I got Ernie’s autograph twice. The most memorable time was opening day, April 8, 1969. Along with many other kids, I leaned over the dugout with a comic book, believe it or not (because my mother was too cheap to buy a program!), and Ernie signed it. (Mom did buy me a Frosty Malt, though.) This was memorialized in a photo on the front page of the Tribune the next day.

Although Banks was a great between the lines, what made him exceptional was his carried himself outside them. Despite playing on horrible teams, and suffering through a crushing disappointment when the best team he played for, the ’69 club, collapsed in September, he was always ebullient. “Let’s play two!” “It’s a beautiful day for baseball!” Even when Leo Durocher treated him badly in the clubhouse, he didn’t let it show. He didn’t blast Durocher. He didn’t try to undermine Durocher. He didn’t demand a trade. He always had a smile and a kind word for everyone.

I defy you to name a single star player today that has Ernie’s attitude.

So farewell, Mr. Cub. A player such as you will likely not be seen again soon, if ever.

 

 

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The World in Flames: Another Low, Dishonest Decade

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:36 pm

Recent days have seen a dramatic escalation of military operations in eastern Ukraine. The New York Times headline is on point: “War Is Exploding Anew in Ukraine.” The Russians* launched an assault on the battered hulk of the Donetsk airport, which had held out for 242 days. The airport fell, with the garrison of “cyborgs” being killed or captured. A counterattack by Ukrainian regulars was abortive. Recent days have seen rocket attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk,with civilians dying. Today a Grad attack in Mariupol killed over 30.  A Ukrainian salient centered on Debaltseve (between Donetsk and Luhansk) is evidently under attack. The “leadership” of the rebels in Donetsk announced-and then unannounced-that an assault on Mariupol was underway.

As I wrote in November, an attack along the coast to open up a route to Crimea would be an obvious move. As for those (including some former military) who claim that major offensive operations would be postponed to the spring, I say: Huh? Winter warfare is a Russian specialty, and even a passing familiarity with the history of campaigns in Russia (Napoleon’s, WWI, and WWII) shows that it is spring (and fall) mud that is a far greater impediment to military operations than cold and snow. The notorious “raputitsa” that follows the snow melt (or fall rains) causes movement to grind to a halt until the fields and roads dry.

This offensive could be underway now, but given the lack of reliable reporting it is impossible to know.

What is Putin’s objective here? Securing Crimea, which is now isolated and vulnerable and difficult to supply, is clearly paramount. Beyond that, I doubt he really wants to take ownership of a Sovok sh*thole like the Donbas. His main objective is to force Kiev to sacrifice its sovereignty, and become a reliable satrapy of Russia. A combination of economic and military pressure falling short of an all out invasion is likely sufficient for that purpose. This is especially true inasmuch as the feckless West is quite clearly unwilling to risk anything to protect Ukraine. Keeping the meat grinder turning in Donbas advances this objective.

As for the indiscriminate attacks on cities, I have no good explanation. Perhaps it is just the thuggishness of the anti-Kiev forces. Perhaps it is part of Putin’s testing of the West. If killing of civilians elicits no more than a shrug of indifference, Putin can be assured that further escalation will come at little cost.

So much for Obama’s State of the Union boast:

Second, we are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.

Putin apparently didn’t notice. Ukraine certainly hasn’t noticed that the bullying has stopped. Indeed, the final assault on the Donetsk airport occurred on the day that Obama uttered these words.

Traveling to the south and west, Syria and Iraq are also in flames, and making a liar of Obama.

Back in December I discerned the outlines of a campaign that will culminate with an attack on Mosul. Last week it became clear that this campaign is indeed proceeding. The Kurds, supported by American airpower, are shaping the battlefield and isolating Mosul from the west and south. The Kurds have made advances around Sinjar and Tal Afar, thereby interfering with ISIS supply lines to its Syrian fastness. The US military has indicated, however, that an assault on Mosul will not occur until the summer, when sufficient numbers of Iraqi regulars have been trained.

In Syria meanwhile, the US is pounding Kobani regularly, and the Kurds are painstakingly pushing back ISIS.

The US commander in the region, General Lloyd Austin stated that ISIS had lost approximately 6000 KIA, and was having manpower problems. This theme was picked up by the US ambassador to Iraq, but the Pentagon quickly squelched this discussion, due to Viet Nam body count flashbacks.

But other than attrition and shaping the battlefield around Mosul, there has been scant progress against ISIS. Indeed, ISIS has been expanding rather dramatically throughout Syria, giving the lie to this SOTU statement: “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.” That’s true to a limited degree in Kobani and Mosul, but flatly wrong elsewhere in Iraq and especially Syria. Don’t even get me started on another Obama delusion: the “success” in Yemen, which has descended into absolute chaos with competing “Death to America” factions, both Shia and Sunni, vying for control.

It’s rather depressing to see the President of the United States do a Baghdad Bob imitation while addressing a joint session of Congress.

In sum, at present it appears that Putin is on the advance in Ukraine and ISIS is at best stalemated in Iraq and Syria. And the West’s leaders, reflecting the indifference of their citizenry, are content to let it happen, or at least do too little to prevent it from happening. In other words, we are in the midst of another low and dishonest decade.

*There is a war of labels in Ukraine. What to call those fighting against the Kiev government? Rebels? Separatists? Pro-Russians? Terrorists (the preferred Ukrainian label)? Russians? The problem is that each label describes a part of the anti-Kiev combatants, but none describes it completely. Yes, there are Ukrainian citizens who are engaged in a separatist rebellion that aims to achieve unification with Russia, and they are advancing Russian interests, making them pro-Russian. Yes, sometimes they employ terrorist methods, though they primarily use conventional military tactics. Yes, there are Russian troops involved, of various types (GRU spetsnaz, artillery and air defense units, armored and infantry elements) in fluctuating numbers. Russian number spiked in August, and appear to be increasing now.

This is  a Russian owned and run operation. The indigenous forces in Donbas obviously obtain massive quantities of Russian ammunition and weapons from Russia, and can’t pay for these arms themselves. Their objectives largely overlap with Putin’s. In addition, there is direct Russian involvement, and that will increase if Putin indeed decides to escalate.

 

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January 18, 2015

Chris Kyle & Alvin York: Avatars of Jacksonian America

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:11 pm

Last night I saw American Sniper. I recommend it. It’s a very straightforward telling of the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq, serving mainly as a sniper providing “overwatch” for Marines operating in the mean streets of places like Fallujah and Sadr City. Kyle was credited with 160 kills, an American record. (The all-time record is held by a Finn who killed over 500 Russians in a few weeks during the Russo-Finnish War of 1940.) This tally included a 2000+ yard shot, which is the sort-of climax of the movie. (Amazingly, he did this with a Macmillan Tac 338,  rather than a 50 caliber Barrett.)

I say sort-of climax, because the movie doesn’t have the standard narrative arc. That reflects its hewing closely to Kyle’s life, and most lives aren’t like classic movie scripts.

Bradley Cooper does an excellent job at portraying Kyle. You can see interviews with Kyle on YouTube, and Cooper’s Kyle captures the real thing in appearance, voice, and mannerisms.

The movie is quite powerful, and the ending which uses film from Kyle’s funeral procession and memorial service in Cowboys Stadium is quite moving.

The best indicator of the impact of the movie is that when screen darkened and people were departing the theater, no one spoke a single word. I am not exaggerating: I did not hear anyone speak, and after noticing the silence I listened for voices, and heard none. People shuffled out in silence, as they might leaving a funeral of a friend struck down too young.*

Walking back from the theater, my mind flashed back to one of my favorite old movies, Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper. (And no, it wasn’t the common last name of the stars that brought that comparison to mind: I honestly didn’t notice that until just now.) There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts. Both Kyle and Alvin York were Southerners who grew up around firearms and hunting. Both were somewhat rambunctious as young men. Both were very patriotic.  Both became celebrated war heroes, and of course, subjects of biopics.

There are of course substantial differences. York found religion, foreswore his previous wild ways, and became an ardent pacifist. He attempted to obtain an exemption from conscription as a conscientious objector, but as his sect was not recognized his request was rejected. Kyle, conversely, volunteered for a branch of the service most likely to see combat.  York’s heroism was compressed into a few hours-a few minutes, really-on a single day in October, 1918: he killed as many as 28 Germans, with as many shots. Kyle served four long tours in Iraq, and his tally was spread out over nearly 1000 days.

The most striking similarity is how they justified killing. Here’s the dialog from Sergeant York:

Colonel: Of course, if you’d rather not tell me,why, it’s quite all right.
York: Well, I’m as much against killing as ever,sir. But it was this way, Colonel. When I started out I felt just like you said. But when I hear them machine guns a-going and all them fellows are dropping around me, I figured that them guns was killing hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothing anybody could do, but to stop them guns.
And that’s what I done.
Colonel: You mean to tell me that you did it to save lives?
York: Yes, sir. That was why.
Colonel: Well, York, what you’ve just told me is the most extraordinary thing of all.

In American Sniper, Kyle says that he was killing to protect his comrades, and that the only thing that he regretted is the ones he couldn’t save.  The psychologist to whom Kyle tells this is as surprised at this statement as York’s colonel was. (Other noted American snipers, such as Chuck Mawhinney and Carlos Hathcock, expressed similar views.)

A similarity in the movies is that both were nominated for Oscars as Best Picture, and both Coopers received nominations for Best Actor. Gary won in 1941, though the movie did not. It remains to be seen how Bradley and his movie do 74 years later.

That may have something to do with politics, and perhaps the most interesting contrast between Sergeant York and American Sniper relates to politics.

In some respects, there is a very strong political subtext to Sergeant York. When the movie was released, the US was very divided about whether to become involved in the World War that was then raging in Europe, and in China. There was a strong isolationist and pacifist streak in the nation, and although Roosevelt was nudge the country towards intervention, there was considerable opposition. Indeed, while Sergeant York was still in theaters, the House of Representatives extended conscription by the margin of a single vote. Viewed against that background, York can be seen as an allegorical figure: a committed pacifist who comes to recognize that killing is sometimes justified because it saves more lives, just as some were arguing that a peace loving US needed to intervene in the world conflict in order to save humanity from murderous regimes.

Even given this political subtext, the movie was not controversial. It was, in fact, wildly popular: it was the largest grossing film in 1941. Moreover, it did not generate any real political controversy. Indeed, its patriotic themes were widely praised. On December 7, 1941, it seemed prescient.

In contrast, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not avowedly political, but it has been the focus of intense political criticism, mostly from the left. Eastwood portrays Kyle like he was. Patriotic. An ardent supporter of the war in Iraq. A man who believed that the US was fighting evil there.

And all of that just won’t do, will it? Since all of these things are an anathema to the progressive left, they have subjected the movie to shrill criticism. The most absurd example of this being the “review” in The New Republic, which was written by someone who hadn’t seen the movie. (I refuse to link to such tripe: you can find it yourself if you want to read it.) Because, hey, who needs to see a movie to judge it, when its plot and its real life protagonist conflict with the accept progressive narrative, right? The most odious example is fittingly from that most odious of progs (quite a competition, that), Michael Moore, who tweeted that snipers are backshooting cowards. (Again, not linking. You’re own your own if you want to subject yourself to his bile.)

Kyle was the type of man who gives the left the vapors. He epitomized the people Obama belittled as “clinging to their guns and religion.” He was a Jacksonian par excellence, and any movie fairly portraying a Jacksonian is beyond the progressive pale. Such men are the true enemies of the progressive left, far more threatening than any jihadi/Salafist/Islamist terrorist, as Obama’s stubborn refusal to utter these words plainly reveals.

But the key thing to note is that Kyle stands out in the movie for his commitment to the war in Iraq: he is the exception, not the rule, among his comrades in arms. There is a scene where Kyle unexpectedly meets his brother, a Marine, on a tarmac in Iraq. His brother is going home after his combat tour, and makes it clear that he detested the war and wants to get far away from it as soon as possible: this leaves Kyle befuddled. One of Kyle’s comrades on several tours is killed, and at the funeral stateside his grieving mother reads his last letter, which is a cri du couer condemning the futility of the war. Kyle tells his wife that the letter killed his friend: he had lost his commitment to the cause, and it had killed him. Eastwood presents both sides and in this, and other parts of the movie, he conveys the grays of the war and the diverse responses of those who fought it. Which is utterly unacceptable to those who see it purely in black and black, and who can only conceive of Kyle as a blood-crazed psychopath.

This should not be surprising, as a recent speech by James Bowman indicates:

Miss Ryzik’s application [in a review of Zero Dark Thirty] of progressive historicism to movie criticism may at first seem just a little incongruous, but it shouldn’t. The politicization both of movie criticism and of the movies themselves has been progressing, too, for decades. Nowadays almost everything written about movies or popular culture by the scholars and academics paid to study such subjects by universities is so reliably progressive, as we now understand the term, that it will seem to ordinary readers already to come from the future. This impression is reinforced by the fact that it is written in a futuristic language only vaguely related to English, a language which is beginning to leave its impression on our own with words like Melena Ryzik’s “narrative” in place of an old-fashioned word like “movie.” She is far from being the only person to think nowadays that “narrative” sounds more intelligent and sophisticated than more concrete language.

We are seeing this in spades with American Sniper.

But this too is revealing: the disconnect between progressive opinion and the popularity of the film is telling. It cleared over $90 million over the weekend of its release, and with tomorrow being MLK holiday, the opening weekend take is likely to be on the order of $115-$120 million. As I noted, the movie clearly moved the audience, and I believe that this is because they admired him and were saddened by the closing scenes of his funeral procession, memorial service, and funeral. Perhaps saddened specifically by the knowledge that he was killed by an emotionally troubled veteran he was trying to help. The progressives may hate Chris Kyle and what he stands for, but apparently vast swathes of America don’t.

In his article on the Jacksonian tradition in American politics (linked above, and which is a must read), Walter Russell Mead notes:

Despite its undoubted limitations and liabilities, however, Jacksonian policy and politics are indispensable elements of American strength. Although Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and the more delicately constructed Hamiltonians do not like to admit it, every American school needs Jacksonians to get what it wants. If the American people had exhibited the fighting qualities of, say, the French in World War II, neither Hamiltonians, nor Jeffersonians nor Wilsonians would have had the opportunity to have much to do with shaping the postwar international order.

Two men portrayed by actors named Cooper nearly 75 years apart-Chris Kyle and Alvin York-personified what Mead writes. At times of trial, Jacksonian America has produced remarkable men who would be misfits in a faculty lounge or the halls of politics, but who make those things possible. They were rough men of a type that permit us to sleep in our beds at night because of their willingness-one reluctantly, one enthusiastically-to do violence on our behalf (to paraphrase the remark often attributed to Orwell). They are the kind of men whom progressives despise. Fortunately, however, it appears there plenty of Americans who think otherwise. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

*Scott relates a similar experience in the comments. When I was waiting to get into the Rec center this morning, several students were talking about the film, and made the same observation. My daughter said that friends had told her the same thing. It’s a phenomenon.

 

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December 24, 2014

A Christmas From Hell, 70 Years Ago

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 5:56 pm

Seventy years ago, on the night of 24-25 December, 1944, the US 75th Division mounted an assault in attempt to seal stem the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes. One of the men in the 75th was my uncle, Norbert Katarski.  Norbert was crawling along the snowy frozen ground cradling his heavy, water-cooled M1917 machine gun when a tree burst horribly wounded him. He suffered compound fractures of both arms, and numerous shrapnel wounds in his back and legs. One piece of shrapnel traveled ripped through his scalp: a fraction of an inch lower, and he would have been killed.

I told Norbert’s story here. Christmas was always a blessed time for him. Most years, he would give the sanitized version of his experience. Two Christmases before his passing in 2009, he told the story, in all its horrific detail.

Please remember men like Norb, and their sacrifices, while you enjoy your Christmas.

And to all of my readers. Thanks so much for your kind attention over the year. I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Cheers!

SWP

 

 

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December 22, 2014

This Day in US Military History

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 7:01 pm

150 years ago, 22 December, 1864, Sherman captured the city of Savannah, GA. Sherman telegraphed Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Two Pirrong ancestors (from the distaff side) served in Sherman’s army, one in the 46th Ohio (4th Division, XV Corps, Army of the Tennessee) and the other in the 92nd Ohio (3rd Division, XIV Corps, Army of Georgia).

70 years ago, 22 December, 1944, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, Assistant Division Commander, 101st Airborne Division, responded to a German demand for the surrender of Bastogne with one word: “Nuts!” The Germans were non-plussed by the reply, so the American delivering the message translated it as “Go to hell.”

The 101st held out against intense German assaults until Patton’s Third Army arrived on 27 December. The 101st wasn’t relieved, however. It was ordered onto the offensive, fighting until mid-January in the meat grinder battle to push back the Germans.

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December 21, 2014

Bomb the ISIS Bandwagon

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:30 pm

An operational plan is clearly shaping up in Iraq. From 12/15-12/17, coalition air forces carried out 45 strikes on 50 targets in support of Peshmerga forces in Ninewa Province: this is a large number, by comparison with the rest of the air campaign, and it is significant that they were carried out in support of a ground offensive. With the help of this support, the Kurds cleared Mt. Sinjar, and have taken a large part of the city of Sinjar. This is important because the city lies on the main road between ISIS’s positions in Syria and Mosul. Furthermore, Iraqi counterterrorism units parachuted (!) into the Tal Afar airport. Tal Afar lies to the east of Sinjar, and is also on the road from Syria to Mosul. If the airport can be secured, this would serve as a base to support advances east and west.

These moves are obviously intended to isolate Mosul from support from ISIS forces and logistics in Syria.

In the meantime, Iraqi forces have made a concerted effort to take Baiji on the Tigris, and also Tikrit somewhat further south. Controlling, or at least interdicting, the line of the Tigris would isolate Mosul from Anbar, ISIS’s main stronghold in Iraq. For this reason, ISIS is counterattacking hard in Baiji, and is also attacking in Ramadi and elsewhere in Anbar, most likely in an effort to draw off Iraq forces from their operations along the Tigris.

Some Iraqis have expressed a desire to attack Mosul soon, but the US is holding them back. It is evident that in addition to needing time to train up Iraqi troops to some semblance of a military force, the US is taking a methodical approach of isolating Mosul and squeezing it for a while before giving the go ahead for an assault.

The US can also use the interval to attrit ISIS troops in Mosul, and undermine morale. This last is a realistic possibility, as recent reports indicate serious discontent among ISIS fighters. ISIS is demanding its minions to swear featly, and to report regularly to keep them from slipping away. Moreover, it is carrying out exemplary executions of those of doubtful enthusiasm or loyalty.

This is most pronounced in Syria, where ISIS’s insane persistence in attacking Kobani has led to an estimated 1000 ISIS KIA. ISIS fighters in Raqqa are beginning to rebel at being sent to Kobani to become JDAM magnets, and there are reports that after many foreign fighters attempted to desert ISIS summarily executed 100 of them, pour encourager les autres. I guess a lot of the Ali Gs who thought jihad would be a lark involving beheading the defenseless and the acquisition of sex slaves in this life are less enamored with the prospect of 72 virgins in the next.

The new ISIS motto is apparently “The executions will continue until morale improves.” Hardly the sign of a confident force.

Time to turn up the pressure. I’ve said that ISIS is like a shark that needs to keep moving to survive. Recruits flocked to its banners when it appeared unstoppable, and about to realize jihadist fantasies. If its inevitability is proven chimerical, the sunshine beheaders will fall away, leaving the hard core types. It is just at such a time, when enemy morale begins to show cracks, that it is imperative to ramp up the pressure. The air campaign is still too desultory, but it has shown results. Increasing its tempo and intensity would almost certainly expedite the unraveling of ISIS, the first signs of which are now manifest.

Napoleon said the moral to the physical is three to one. Let’s use our physical superiority to pressure ISIS’s moral center of gravity. Bombing the bandwagon is the best way to consign ISIS to oblivion.

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December 20, 2014

Can a Money Launderer Truly Come Clean?

Filed under: Energy,History,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

During his press conference, Putin made a very arch reply to a question about Khodorkovsky’s ambition to be president: “Of what country?”

Well, Khodorkovsky is making it clear that the answer to that question is “Russia.” He gives voice to his ambitions in an extended interview in the FT, and repeats his forecast that Putin’s main danger comes from within his “entourage”.

In some respects, Khodorkovsky’s re-emergence and frank statements of his political ambitions and his vision of himself as savior of Russia are a favor to Putin. Especially in times that bring back uncomfortable memories of the 90s collapse, the most notorious oligarch from that era makes a perfect foil for Putin. Breaking the oligarchs was one of the primary foundations of Putin’s reputation and popularity (with the war in Chechnya being another). What better way for Putin to remind Russians of why he is needed than the reemergence of Khodorkovsky?

And Khodorkovsky is definitely a very flawed vessel. Even if his prosecution and imprisonment was a travesty of justice, that’s not to say that he couldn’t have been convicted in a fair trial. For contemporary reporting, both Russian and non-Russian, makes it clear that Khordorkovsky was a ruthless operator who used every trick in the book to avoid taxation, and expropriate minority shareholders and creditors. This article from April, 2000 provides the chapter and verse.

Most of these tricks involved offshore shell companies that he owned. For instance, Khordorkovsky would engage in asset stripping, whereby assets of his Russian enterprises were transferred to the shell companies he owned. Another trick was stock watering, whereby his entities would issue large numbers of new shares of stock that were sold to his shell companies, thereby diluting the ownership of outside investors. He used these devices to great effect in the immediate aftermath of the  financial crisis. Non-Russian banks who had made loans to Khodorkovsky’s Menatep Bank collateralized by Yukos shares saw the values of these shares plummet when he stripped Yukos assets and watered the stock in a way that would have made Daniel Drew and Jay Gould blush.

Khodorkovsky was also the past-master at transfer pricing schemes, whereby output of his Russian companies would be sold to offshore entities at a fraction of the world price; the offshore entities would then sell at the world price. According to the Foreign Affairs article, during the first nine months of 1999, Yukos sold 240mm barrels of oil at about 10 percent of the world price to offshore entities, pocketing $800 million.

And of course, there is the way that he acquired Yukos, via the Loans for Shares deal, and the rigged auction that followed the (inevitable) government default on the loans.

Khodorkovsky was definitely not the hero of western investors back then. In fact, he was a villain.

For all this, Khodorkovsky exhibits little remorse. Arguably none:

I ask about the “loans-for-shares” auctions in 1995 when a handful of businessmen — the oligarchs — lent money to the near-bankrupt Russian state and received stakes in state businesses as collateral. When the state failed to repay the loans, the oligarchs sold the stakes to themselves at knockdown prices. Today the auctions are seen, I remark, as a kind of “original sin” hanging over Russian business.

“I wouldn’t entirely agree,” Khodork­ovsky says. At the time it looked, he continues, as if a Communist candidate would beat President Boris Yeltsin in the elections, which would have spelt the end of private business. Given the risks, no foreign investor was interested. So the shares were worth only what Russian investors would pay — in Khodorkovsky’s case, about $300m, for just under 80 per cent of Yukos.

. . . .

The tax “minimisation” schemes — selling oil through onshore tax havens — at Yukos that were the heart of the trials against him were known to the authorities and even senior ministers, he insists. “In tax law, it’s a crime in most countries if you’ve hidden something. But we didn’t hide anything.” [This remark is particularly disingenuous.]

Note that his justification of the loans for shares fails altogether to address the issue of the rigged auctions. If no other investors were interested, why were the auctions rigged in order to ensure that none could possibly win?

The unapologetic attitude towards not paying taxes is not new:

Khodorkovsky was robustly unapologetic. ‘ As long as the tax regime is unjust, I will try to find a way round it.’

What complicates the Khodorkovsky story is his apparent conversion in around 2000, when Yukos adopted GAAP accounting and western governance standards, and began hiring American managers, including Bruce Misamore as CFO. Was this a Road to Damascus conversion, or a calculated strategy to make the company attractive to western supermajors? Certainly this was the effect: at the time of his arrest, he was on the brink of selling a large stake in Yukos to either Exxon Mobil or Chevron.

His late-in-the-day embrace of western business practices and his persecution are relevant in evaluating his character and motives today, but his history cannot be overlooked. I for one am very skeptical that he has undergone a fundamental change. The failure to repudiate some of his more outrageous actions certainly raises doubts. Someone should address them.

There’s a possible candidate. One of the initiatives that Khodorkovsky funds in order to advance his agenda is Interpreter Magazine, edited by Michael Weiss. This is beyond passing strange, because Weiss has crusaded against Russian money laundering through the use of shell companies and transfer pricing schemes-the very techniques that his paymaster refined into an art 20 years ago. Interestingly, I can find no evidence that Weiss has subjected his patron to similar scrutiny. Not even an acknowledgment that the denizens of Londonograd that he excoriates are pikers compared to his pioneering patron, let alone an inquiry that could attempt to determine whether the man who emerged from prison a year ago is different from the man who went into prison in 2003, and who did the things that put him there.

This would be a truly valuable investigation, far more important than anything Weiss or Interpreter has done. This is particularly true given Khodorkovsky’s return to political life.

There is another strange twist here. Khodorkovsky has come out in opposition to sanctions, and in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea: he claims that returning it would be undemocraticthe act of a dictator. Given that Putin also claims to be carrying out the public will, this raises questions about how differently Khodorkovsky would act if he were in Putin’s place. It also raises questions about his commitment to the rule of law, which he claims to support.

In sum, Khodorkovsky is playing a political role. Indeed, he is holding himself out as the man who can put Russia on the path away from autocracy towards the rule of law and respect for civil society. He has a past. A very disreputable one, though one perhaps redeemed by reform and punishment. But one can never be sure that the past is truly gone. Given that the most scurrilous acts in the past involved money laundering and shell companies, you’d think that a journalist who has crusaded against those things would be the man to find out.

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December 19, 2014

Obama’s Press Conference: Bad Economics, Dissing a Friend, Embracing an Enemy

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,History,Politics — The Professor @ 9:43 pm

Hard on the heels of Putin’s press conference, Obama held one of his own. Blessedly, it was shorter. That’s the only good thing I can say about it.

At least Putin’s pressers offer some entertainment, some of it intentional, some of it accidental. Obama’s appearances are as entertaining as a root canal performed to the accompaniment of fingernails on a blackboard.

I will limit myself to comments on two issues.

First, yet again Obama slagged on Keystone XL. And yet again, he delivered a disingenuous, economically ignorant attack on the pipeline:

“There is very little impact – nominal impact – on U.S. gas prices, what the average American consumer cares about,” Obama told reporters during an end-of-year press conference.

. . . .

“It’s good for the Canadian oil industry, but its not going to be a huge benefit to us consumers,” he said.

Obama stressed that the issue at hand for Keystone is “not American oil, it is Canadian oil.”

“That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks and it would save Canadian oil companies, and the Canadian oil industry enormous amounts of money if they could simply pipe it all the way down to the Gulf,” Obama said during his final press conference of 2014.

“It’s very good for Canadian oil companies, and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers, it’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers,” Obama said.

Where to begin?

  1. What the hell did the Canadians ever do to him? Does he hate them because they are members of the British Commonwealth? (And we know he loathes Britain.) It is truly astounding to see a president who is so solicitous of many thuggish regimes be so dismissive of a longtime friend and ally. Speaking about Keystone, Obama turns into an American Firster nativist, rather than his usual pose as Citoyen du Monde.
  2. Last time I checked, the oil would be refined-and value added to it-in American refineries.  That would benefit American oil companies, American workers, and the owners and employees of companies that supply the refineries. The money savings would be split between American and Canadian companies. But maybe because the refineries are located in Texas and Louisiana, which have repudiated Obama massively, that’s a bug not a feature. Or maybe Obama doesn’t understand that oil doesn’t magically transform itself into gasoline, diesel, etc.
  3. Or maybe Obama persists in the delusion that the oil will be exported, disregarding basic economics, common sense, and the analysis of his own State Department.
  4. There would be no impact on gas prices only if the supply of Canadian crude is completely inelastic: in this case, the quantity of oil produced and refined would be the same, regardless of how costly it is to transport it to market. If supply is somewhat elastic, lowering transportation costs increases output, which lowers product prices; moreover, holding output fixed, reducing transportation costs reduces the final product price. And perhaps most importantly, the alleged justification for stopping Keystone is the environmental damage Canadian heavy crude inflicts. But if supply is perfectly inelastic, there is no environmental benefit of raising transportation cost, because this will not affect the amount of oil produced, and hence will not affect the amount of CO2 it produces. (Not to mention that pipelines are a safer, more environmentally sound way of transporting this oil.) So if Obama is right about gas prices he is wrong about environmental benefits, and vice versa.

Unbelievable.

Come to think of it, I think that Obama’s real reason for opposing Keystone XL is that the Venezuelans would be the biggest losers. I am pretty sure he has much more of an affinity with Chavistas than Canucks.

Which brings me to the other issue: Cuba.

I am ambivalent about the embargo, or the lack of diplomatic recognition. I can argue either side. But there are many things about this initiative that make me uneasy.

For one thing, Cuba is in dire straits. This is where Venezuela comes in. The Bolivarian paradise has been carrying the Castros’ shambolic regime for years, but is now itself on the verge of economic collapse. Default is imminent, and at the current level of oil prices economic collapse is a real possibility. Venezuela is already cutting back support to the Cuban regime, and will cut it back further. Given that, the Castros are desperate, and Obama could have extracted a much better deal. A deal that would have given some benefit to the Cuban people, rather than bailing out the regime and allowing to continue its repression and depredations.

Obama’s rhetoric was also offensive, and at times historically ignorant. He characterized the embargo as a “failed policy.” Pretty rich for a serial failure to insult 9 previous presidents and 26 Congresses. He could have made an affirmative case for a new policy, and recognized the reasons for the previous policy, without such condescension.

Moreover, he made mention of the need to move beyond “the legacy of colonialism and communism.” Communism isn’t a legacy in Cuba: it is a daily reality. Insofar as colonialism is concerned, is Obama referring to Spain? Because he sure as hell can’t be referring to the US: Cuba was never an American colony. The Teller Amendment to the declaration of war against Spain in 1898 forbade the US from annexing Cuba. It was under US administration for four years, but achieved full independence in 1902. (Obama made the colonialism/communism remark in a discussion of Latin America generally, but this doesn’t really save him. Cuba is the only longstanding Communist country in Latin America; colonialism ended in Latin America in the 1820s; the US-via the Monroe Doctrine-kept out colonial powers in the 19th century; and colonialism is the least of Latin America’s problems, which tend to be very much home grown. In mentioning colonialism, Obama was just regurgitating a standard prog trope.)

Obama also engaged in his self-indulgent habit of making history all about him. He noted that Fidel Castro assumed power two years before Obama’s birth, and the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred soon before he was born. (Interesting that he uses the “I” word to refer to Bay of Pigs, but not Ukraine.) Who cares? What does this have to do with anything?  Does he have to bring himself into everything?

I’ve therefore decided that I will hereafter designate all dates by BO and AO: Before Obama and After Obama. Castro assumed power in 2BO. Bay of Pigs occurred in Year Zero. Obama elected in 47 AO.

The means by which Obama pursued this policy was also typically high handed, and failed to include or consult with anyone in Congress. And no, I don’t include corrupt tax scofflaw Charlie Rangel, who was photographed lounging like a beached whale in the Cuban sun after helping in the negotiations.

The means and the outcome of the Cuban opening also make me uneasy about deals with Iran.

I could go on, but I’ll close with one point. People have compared this to Nixon’s opening of China. Superficially, this is plausible. But there is a major difference.

Nixon could go to China because his stalwart anti-Communist credentials (which had won him the intense enmity of the left) made it credible that Nixon was acting in the interests of the US, rather than indulging his ideological preferences: if a McGovern or a Henry Wallace had attempted the same there would have been justifiable suspicions of their motives and the benefits to the US. In contrast, Che is worshipped has a hero rather than condemned as a psychopathic murderer in Obama’s political circles. His administration has taken a very benign approach to leftist Latin American regimes, including Venezuela and Nicaragua. This raises doubts about what his Cuba initiative will entail, and whether it will advance American interests or benefit the long-suffering and repressed Cuban people.

So to summarize Obama’s last press conference: he slammed a long-time ally and sucked up to a long-time enemy. Which pretty much summarizes his foreign policy, generally.

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December 18, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad, Annual Press Conference Edition

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:13 pm

Putin gave his annual press conference today. It turned into a 3 hour and 10 minute marathon, which is pretty much par for the course.

Several times before I have pondered whether Putin is mad, or just feigning madness. I had been favoring the feigning alternative, but today’s event tilts the scales heavily to the “truly nuts” verdict (as @libertylynx has been arguing for some time).

Why do I conclude that? Here’s why:

You know, at the Valdai [International Discussion] Club I gave an example of our most recognisable symbol. It is a bear protecting his taiga. You see, if we continue the analogy, sometimes I think that maybe it would be best if our bear just sat still. Maybe he should stop chasing pigs and boars around the taiga but start picking berries and eating honey. Maybe then he will be left alone. But no, he won’t be! Because someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he’s chained they will tear out his teeth and claws. In this analogy, I am referring to the power of nuclear deterrence. As soon as – God forbid – it happens and they no longer need the bear, the taiga will be taken over.

We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety. Why exactly is it unfair? So it is fair to snatch Texas from Mexico but it is unfair that we are working on our own land – no, we have to share.

And then, when all the teeth and claws are torn out, the bear will be of no use at all. Perhaps they’ll stuff it and that’s all.

So, it is not about Crimea but about us protecting our independence, our sovereignty and our right to exist. That is what we should all realise.

QED.

I think said bear is not snacking on berries and honey, but is grazing on magic mushrooms, for he is clearly hallucinating.

The paranoia is palpable: “someone will always try to chain him up! They will declaw and defang him!” Note too the explicit nuclear threat.

You know the “they” is the United States. The speech is shot through with paranoid and critical ravings about the US. Nothing is Russia’s fault. Certainly nothing is Putin’s fault. The country’s torments are attributable to the US, first and foremost.

The statement about “high-level officials” lamenting the unfairness of Russia having sole access to Siberia is also a shot at the US. Here Putin is recycling an urban myth that he first trotted out in 2007. In the telling, Madeleine Albright (a has-been high-level official) allegedly uttered these words. Here’s the story:

When Alexander Sibert told President Vladimir Putin that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had said Siberia held too many resources for Russia alone, Putin dismissed the statement as “political erotica.” Albright might have found “political fantasy” more appropriate.

Putin said he was not aware of the comment, Albright denies ever making it, and no one else seems able to provide any evidence that she did.

But this hasn’t stopped Putin and others from attributing these thoughts to foreign figures who they say wish Russia harm.

Sibert, 70, a mechanic who works at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, brought up the purported statement in a question during Putin’s annual call-in show last month.

“I know some politicians entertain such ideas in their heads,” Putin replied, adding that Russia was able to and would protect its natural resources. [How does he know that? Just wait! All will be revealed.]

The only problem is that Albright, who is now a principal at the Albright Group strategic management and lobbying firm, denied through a spokeswoman that she ever entertained the idea.

“I did not make that statement, nor did I ever think it,” she said.

On Tuesday, Sibert was unable to provide a source for the alleged quote, or even a guarantee that he had heard it.

“I don’t know. I might have made a mistake,” he said by phone from Novosibirsk. “But I don’t think I did.”

But wait. It gets better!

In perhaps the strangest part of the story, there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter what Albright said — they know what she was thinking.

Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general who worked for the Federal Guard Service, said in a December 2006 interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that his colleagues, who worked for the service’s secret mind-reading division, read Albright’s subconscious a few weeks before the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. [So now we know how Putin knows what is in the heads of foreign leaders.]

[Read the rest of the story. It adds even more ludicrous details.]

In other words, Putin is regurgitating a story that was proved to be bullshit seven years ago. A story that he himself dismissed once as “political erotica.” (Weird choice of words, that, especially given that Madeleine Albright is involved <shudder>). A story allegedly based in part on the security services’ “mind reading division.” You cannot make up this stuff. Go ahead. I dare you to even try.

He flogged the tiresome story (which as fantastical as the Albright one) that Nato violated a pledge not to expand to the east:

It is not now that this happened. You are an expert on Germany and on Europe. Didn’t they tell us after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand eastwards? However, the expansion started immediately. There were two waves of expansion. Is that not a wall? True, it is a virtual wall, but it was coming up. What about the anti-missile defence system next to our borders? Is that not a wall?

You see, nobody has ever stopped. This is the main issue of current international relations. Our partners never stopped. They decided they were the winners, they were an empire, while all the others were their vassals, and they needed to put the squeeze on them. I said the same in my Address [to the Federal Assembly]. This is the problem. They never stopped building walls, despite all our attempts at working together without any dividing lines in Europe and the world at large.

I believe that our tough stand on certain critical situations, including that in the Ukraine, should send a message to our partners that the best thing to do is to stop building walls and to start building a common humanitarian space of security and economic freedom.

You have to hand it to Putin, he is generous, letting 300+ million Americans live in his head, rent free. But I for one hate what he’s done to the place.

There was also a weird interlude where a slurring reporter from Kirov asked why stores were more likely to stock Coke and Pepsi than kvas, the fermented, putrid Russian drink. (In the summer it is sold by vendors from large wheeled tanks that could well be used to hold diesel or pesticide at other times of year.) Putin made a crack suggesting the man was drunk, which was a faux pas because his slurring was due to multiple strokes, rather than overindulging the kvas as Putin suggested. Putin then slurred Coke: “I do not know whether Coca-Cola is a harmful drink, but many experts say it is [harmful] for children”. Whatever.

As for the substance of the speech, it was tediously unoriginal, a 280 minute spinning of the hamster wheel. The Ukrainian government was overthrown by a coup. Russia’s population is growing. Blah blah blah.

He gave no hint of backing down in Ukraine.

He did acknowledge economic difficulties (how could he not?) but minimized them. He actually suggested there is a pony in there somewhere in the economic manure pile in which Russia currently finds itself: it will give the country an opportunity to diversify.

Like we’ve never heard that before. Hasn’t happened yet. Won’t happen anytime soon. The hamster wheel will just spin faster.

Putin grudgingly conceded the crisis could last for two years, at most, but the country’s massive reserves would prevent catastrophe: the markets certainly disagree. After that, things will be hunky-dory:

However, it is equally certain – and I would like to stress this – that there will be what experts call a positive rebound. Further growth and a resolution of this situation are inevitable for at least two reasons. One is that the global economy will continue to grow, the rates may be lower, but the positive trend is sure to continue. The economy will grow, and our economy will come out of this situation.

How long will this take? In a worst-case scenario, I believe it would take a couple of years. I repeat: after that, growth is inevitable, due to a changing foreign economic situation among other things.

Growth is inevitable! Well, eventually the economy will grow, but by how much? Post-2009, growth has been moribund. Absent another reversal in energy price trends, growth after the current crisis is likely to be moribund as well, given that it is almost inevitable that the institutional and legal changes necessary to encourage growth will not be forthcoming while an aging Putin is in power.

In sum, Russia is ruled by an autocrat with a tenuous (at best) connection to sanity, and who is not going to change policy one whit despite almost total isolation abroad and looming economic catastrophe at home. An deranged autocrat with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world-a fact that he never misses an opportunity to remind us of. Since he will only get more insane, the next months and years will be fraught indeed.

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December 13, 2014

Khodorkovsky As a Russian Cincinnatus? Cynical Machiavellian is More Likely.

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:41 pm

It has been almost exactly a year since Putin pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The ex-oligarch now lives an exile existence in Zurich. Of late, he has been much more vocal in expressing his views on Putin and Russia’s future.

Take for example this piece from Bloomberg that appeared yesterday. Khodorkovsky muses about Putin’s situation, given the oil price and sanctions-induced economic straits Russia finds itself in. He openly suggests that a coup is a real possibility:

“Putin has far less room to maneuver financially, which creates difficulties for him, and as a result the cost of any mistakes he may make could be critical,” Khodorkovsky, 51, said in an interview in Zurich, dressed casually in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. “For Putin, even $120 a barrel for oil is a problem because, with his system of rule, he can’t survive without the revenue from raw materials growing every year.”

. . . .

There’s at least a 50 percent chance that Putin won’t last the next decade, according to the former tycoon, who pins his hope on a coup by the Russian leader’s inner circle because in his view elections won’t bring about any transfer of power.

“I believe that the problem for Putin will come from within his own entourage,” he told Bloomberg yesterday. “For my country, it would be better if things happened this way than through clashes on the streets, as a palace coup would spill less blood.”

Knowing Khodorkovsky’s background, it is plausible that he is playing a Machiavellian game here, ostensibly pontificating about possible outcomes, but really intending to bring about that outcome, and using his words to advance that objective.

One interpretation is that he is waging psychological warfare against Putin. Note his remark regarding Putin’s entourage. He is stoking Putin’s paranoia and attempting to start a clan war, and believe me, especially where Khodorkovsky is concerned, Putin is paranoid: his reactions to Khodorkovsky can only be described as Pavlovian, and don’t think for a nanosecond that Khodorkovsky doesn’t know that.

If the coup comes to pass, Khodorkovsky can ride in as the white knight. He is plainly volunteering for the role:

In a scenario that Khodorkovsky acknowledges isn’t more than an outside possibility, this could open the chance for him to come back to Russia to head a transitional government that would steer the country for two-to-three years before stepping down after a free and democratic vote.

How generous and public spirited of him. Of course, in Russian history “transitional governments” tend to be transitions between one autocracy and another. Further, I understand completely time inconsistency and (non-)credible promises: it’s likely that two-to-three years would turn into twenty-or-thirty. At the end of the second or third year, one can imagine the excuses: “My work is not finished. The enemies of the people are still there and will return if I leave.” I cannot see him as a Russian Cincinnatus.

In other words, when predicting the future (a reprise of 1917) he is saying what he wants to come to pass. He is trying to hurry that along, and the economic crisis (or impending economic crisis) is an opportunity for him. The old Russian revolutionary idea of “the worse, the better” could well apply here.*

Like Putin, Khodorkovsky is an opportunist. He perceives that current events have created that opportunity. (I think it is likely that his conversion to becoming an advocate for corporate transparency and western-style governance was also opportunistic, rather than a Road to Jerusalem conversion: he realized that was the way to make Yukos attractive to a western supermaj0r buyer/investor.)

All that said, I believe-and wrote here often-that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was a travesty of justice. Indeed, he was persecuted rather than prosecuted. His experience from 2003-2013 demonstrates the arbitrariness and evil of the Russian system under Putin.

But Khodorkovsky was not an angel. No man could have risen to where he did, and amassed the fortune that he did, in the Russia of 1990s without being utterly ruthless and without scruple. What probably set Khodorkovsky apart was that he is also incredibly intelligent. He is also very charismatic. I know two people who worked with him closely who are in awe of him. He clearly had a mesmeric influence on them. Putin’s palpable fear of the man also speaks volumes about his intelligence and personal magnetism. Ruthlessness married to charisma married to intelligence is a very dangerous combination.

Even if Khodorkovsky’s currently expressed sentiments are sincere, and he is not speaking out as part of a scheme to become Russia’s savior, if his scenario comes to pass it is highly doubtful that his lofty principles would survive a few months in power. A post-coup or post-revolutionary Russia would have no real institutions to check him. He would be surrounded by enemies. Russian politics has always been highly personalized and a-institutional. Every force would press him towards autocracy, personalized rule, and a cult of personality.

So as much as I sympathize with what he suffered, and as much as I would welcome the fall of Putinism, I don’t trust Khodorkovsky, nor do I think he is the man to lead Russia to the promised land, or even to its border. (And remember Moses never entered Canaan.) Indeed, I can readily see him using his martyrdom as a way of advancing his personal ambitions, and believe that many are blind to that possibility.

(Some of those who work for his foundation, and presumably believe in his agenda, are also passionate defenders of Urkaine against Putin’s predations. How can they be blind to his indifference to Ukraine?)

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Khordorkovsky is not attempting to influence events in Moscow from Lenin’s old neighborhood in Zurich. Perhaps he is just commenting as an intensely interested bystander to historic events.

If that’s so, he’s delusional. The idea that he would be welcomed as a leader who could achieve national reconciliation in the aftermath of a coup (let alone a revolution) is farcical. He is widely reviled in Russia. It would be interesting to see who is more hated: Gorbachev or Khodorkovsky. He is viewed as one of the pirates of the 1990s, indeed as the most dangerous of the lot. I would wager more people than not believe he got his just desserts in Chita (and elsewhere) after 2003. His only role could be as a behind-the-scenes wire puller.

What’s more, Khodorkovsky is delusional in his appeals to Russian liberals, and his appeals to the west to support Russian liberals. There are hardly any Russian liberals left in Russia. Maybe a few hipsters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a few pathetic hangers on here and there. Indeed, Russian liberals are widely despised, and inextricably linked with the traumas of the 1990s. They are viewed as thieves themselves, or accessories to theft-including Khodorkovsky’s.  Navalny’s nationalist rhetoric has a far greater resonance than Khodorkovsky’s liberal language.

Reading some things he has said recently also make me wonder about his connection with reality. Notably this:

Is there hope of being able to effectively deal with this threat? There is, and it stems from the very nature of the Russian bureaucracy, which is generally rational and apolitical. There are many people in the Russian establishment who are sober-minded, think rationally and, on the whole, are oriented towards European values. But today these people are being forced to submit to a political will that has been formulated by a criminally corrupt minority whose only goal is to hold on to power.

Russian bureaucrats are “rational and apolitical”? Who knew? Venal and corrupt is more like it, and quite comfortable operating in an arbitrary autocratic system. After all, the Party of Crooks and Thieves is first and foremost the party of the bureaucratic nomenklatura. “Sober-minded”? That is risible, both figuratively and literally. And as for their “on the whole [being] oriented towards European values”, I don’t think I’ve read anything so absurd in some time. The Russian bureaucracy is Muscovite to the core.

Indeed, these statements (and most of the rest of the speech in which they are found) are so ridiculous that it must be that Khodorkovsky recognizes they are, and hence is willing to say anything to achieve some purpose. The goo-goo nature of his specific recommendations (e.g., the promotion of cultural and educational exchanges between Russia and Europe) only reinforce that impression.

In sum, I view Khodorkovsky in the role of the serpent. Putin is a malign force, but there is too much in Khodorkovsky’s past and character to have any faith that he will fundamentally change Russia.

The fundamental problem is that Putin is far more symptom than cause. He is the current personal manifestation of a national culture and political system and tradition. It is hard to imagine any way of leaping the chasm from personalized, autocratic governance to a system built on strong institutions and the rule of law. The fundamental paradox is that no man-Khodorkovskyor anyone else-is likely to be able to do that.

In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem: we have a Russia problem. We are likely to have it for, well, pretty much forever.  And Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the man to solve that problem, even if he is sincere in his statements that he wants to.

*This phrase is often attributed to Lenin, but is more likely traceable to Nikolay Chernyshevsky. It was used by Plekhanov in a newspaper article in July, 1917 that Lenin responded to.

 

 

 

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