Germany’s Suppression of Free Speech Online

I don’t know how accurate this article on Angela Merkel’s clamping down on digital free speech is – perhaps Bloke in Germany could comment? – but it’s an interesting follow-up to my earlier post:

Absent of an easy route to get at the netizens themselves, what the government really needed was a quick way to force social media firms to make their platforms inhospitable environments for critical, dissident expression; But taking action against social media networks did not turn out to be all that easy.

But coercively targetting social media companies remained an attractive option for the German government. Outsourcing censorship to privately-owned social media firms presents a neat way to circumvene the high bar of constitutional scrutiny that would apply to the state if it tried to enact such censorship directly.

As Germany has economically boomed under Merkel‘s leadership, social compassion and honesty in the public sphere has reached a record low. Corrupt property developers, ruthless drug dealers, and organised crime are being allowed to take over economically deprived parts of Berlin, Frankfurt, Bremen and Colonoge with impunity, while police simply watch. As Berlin‘s political-corporate elite shops in an ever-growing number of luxury all-organic supermarkets, they cheer on the financial rape of Greece and other Southern European countries by the German-led EU‘s austerity programs; Brutal regimes of cuts and privatisations have left some ordinary, hard-working people in those countries unable to afford even basic essentials such as food and medical care. The supposedly anti-racist, pro-equality mainstream media in Germany outdoes itself day-on-day in finding new, politically-useful ways to implicitly suggest to their readers that ‘lazy‘, ‘heat-dazed‘ Greeks deserve all the degrading austerity they get.

Unsurpringly, Vladimir Putin‘s authoritarian United Russia party has already moved to replicate the Network Enforcement Act. In July, it presented an extremely similar draft social media bill in the Russian parliament, the Duma, that even goes as far as explicitly referring to the German law as its inspiration. Proving that imitation is the sincerest flattery, Russian legislators even copied the exact, expedited content deletion timeframe of 24 hours directly from the German government‘s law.

They’re all at it, aren’t they?

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People are different. Who knew?

There are a few snippets I’ve read over the last few days which can be tied together with a common thread. Firstly, Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the NYT:

The challenge facing democratically minded Russians therefore isn’t simply to remove Mr. Putin from power; it’s to replace the authoritarian system he personifies.

The whole piece is an American liberal’s wet dream of a country which has never seen proper democracy simply seeing the light and embracing the sort of society readers of the New York Times claim they want to see. This was the same idiotic thinking which got people believing if only we bombed the shit out of Iraq and got rid of Saddam Hussein, democracy would flourish. I don’t know if democracy and a free, tolerant society can take hold in Russia but if it does it must come from Russians themselves, preferably ones who aren’t former robber-barons who spent a decade in prison before fleeing abroad. I don’t agree with the conviction of Khodorkovsky, but I doubt he had much interest in turning Russia into a liberal, open society until he fell foul of the regime and the New York Times and their ilk started paying him to promote one. Simply stating Russia needs to move away from a centralised, authoritarian system is a bit like saying if only Israel dropped Judaism things would improve. You’d need a new population first.

The second is a comment from Bloke in North Dorset under yesterday’s post:

Going back to Tim’s point about the media, especially the BBC. Part of their problem is they have spent years carrying out the Buddhist equivalent of beatifying Aung San Suu Kyi and now she’s turned out be just like any other leader in the region who is more interested in power than human rights, especially those of minority Muslims.

There are a lot of people expressing their disappointment in Ms Suu Kyi , presumably for failing to leap to the aid of the Rohingyas. I expect those who are disappointed don’t know much about the Burmese or Asians in general, and those who do aren’t surprised in the least. I confess I don’t know much about Asians and nothing about Burmese, but in that part of the world one’s race or tribe counts for quite a lot. From what I can tell, Ms Suu Kyi’s original beef was with the ruling militia which was oppressing ordinary Burmese, and she wanted things to change – for the benefit of Burmese. Did she care about other minority groups out of adherence to some universal standards of human rights? In hindsight, obviously not. Alas, the wet lefties in the west who wrung their hands for years as Ms Suu Kyi languished under house arrest simply assumed she was just like them. Funnily enough, being Burmese and not American or European, she isn’t.

Thirdly, this news report from the BBC:

The EU’s top court has rejected a challenge by Hungary and Slovakia to a migrant relocation deal drawn up at the height of the crisis in 2015.

In asking the court to annul the deal, Hungary and Slovakia argued at the Court of Justice that there were procedural mistakes, and that quotas were not a suitable response to the crisis.

Officials say the problem is not of their making, that the policy exposes them to a risk of Islamist terrorism and that it represents a threat to their homogenous societies.

Their case was supported by Poland, where a right-wing government has come to power since the 2015 deal.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was furious, calling it “appalling and irresponsible”. He vowed to use all legal means against the judgement, which he said was “the result of a political decision not the result of a legal or expert decision”.

“Politics has raped European law and European values. This decision practically and openly legitimates the power of the EU above the member states,” he said.

“The real fight starts now.”

In a milder statement, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country’s position on quotas also “does not change”.

The people and governments of Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have made it abundantly clear that they do not want refugees from the Middle East and Africa being settled on their territory. The powers that be in Brussels deem this unacceptable, and wish to force these countries to take them.

The thread linking these three stories is the one whereby the ruling classes in the west seem to loftily assume that everyone else in the world is just like them, and if they aren’t then they should be. That western liberals are western liberals because they are products of the west’s liberal culture doesn’t seem to occur to them; they think people who are from wholly different cultures bound by very different histories and geography are the same, simply because they wish them to be.

As an attitude, it’s all rather 18th century colonial, isn’t it? Christian missionaries telling the natives to take the bone out of their nose and stop eating people would fit in well with today’s establishment classes.

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Dodgy Traffic Police

Today’s re-posted blog entry is from November 2011 and concerns corrupt traffic police in Nigeria and Russia.

Today I got pulled over by a dodgy traffic policeman for the first time since I came to Lagos over a year ago. I wasn’t driving (I never do: a pale face behind a wheel may just as well be replaced with a sign saying “Free Money Here” as far as the Lagos traffic police go), and was sat in the back reading.

A scrawny, unshaved, shit of a man with a uniform he’d been potholing in banged on the bonnet of my car at a place where the traffic police have been doing a lot of document checks of late. With Christmas coming up, they are looking to maximise revenue. Here’s how the conversation went.

Policeman: Give me your documents.

(My driver handed the policeman the documents. He looked at some of them, wishing he had learned to read before joining the police.)

Policeman: Hey! You have not signed this one and this one!

Driver: And?

Policeman: Who is the owner of this vehicle?

Me (winding down rear window): Me.

Policeman: You haven’t signed these documents.

Me: Oh.

Policeman: You haven’t signed these documents!

Me: I know. You said.

Policeman: You did not go to the vehicle administration centre.

Me: (silence)

Policeman: I said you did not go to the vehicle adminstration centre.

Me: I know. You said.

Policeman: Then you should answer me.

Me: If you want me to answer you, first you must ask a question.

Policeman: I axed you a question.

Me: No, you made a statement.

Policeman: Did you go to the vehicle adminstration centre?

Me: No.

Policeman: Then who registered your vehicle?

Me: The garage from which I bought it.

Policeman: Do you know it is a criminal offence not to sign a paper?

Me: Okay.

Policeman: You need to drive around the corner and wait for me there.

Me: Fine, but I need my documents back.

Policeman: No, you don’t need them. Drive over there.

Me: Not without my documents.

Policeman: You need to follow me to Ikeja (some place miles and miles away).

Me: Fine. But first I’m calling my company security team.

Policeman: Okay, call who you want.

(I call my company security, who dispatch an intervention team consisting of a high-ranking policeman and a bit of muscle)

Me: Okay, I’ve called my security department. We’re gonna have to wait here until the intervention team arrives.

Policeman: No, you need to come with us now.

Me: Sorry pal, this is the procedure I’m told to follow. Now I can move the car off the road a bit, but I cannot and will not leave the scene until the intervention team arrives.

Policeman: Are you giving me instructions?

Me: No, I’m just telling you what I am doing.

Policeman: Are you resisting arrest?

Me: Nope. Just sitting here in my car, waiting for the intervention team.

Policeman: But you cannot wait here, you will cause an accident.

Me: Okay, we’ll pull off the road just over there. But I’m not going anywhere else until the interven…

Policeman (throwing my documents through the window): Get out of here!

I was as calm as a mill pond in June. My driver (a local) was as calm as St. George’s channel in January with gale warnings in Lundy, Fastnet, and Irish Sea. He kept arguing with the policeman, demanding he be spoken to properly, asking him what our offence was, and generally acting exactly as this illiterate halfwit in a beret which had once cleaned up an oil spill wanted him to. The key to these situations is to show firstly that you couldn’t give a fuck, and secondly that you have all the time in the world.

I learned this in Russia. When I used to get hauled over for speeding, I’d apologise and get the topic onto football ASAP, trying to be as friendly as possible. I once managed to get let off a fine and a confiscated car by doing this when I’d been pulled over for speeding and they found my insurance had expired. But if I’d done nothing wrong and they were finding spelling mistakes in my documents, then they were in for a long wait.

Firstly I’d speak to them in Russian. If they didn’t let me off, I’d wait until they filled out the whole form and handed it to me to sign, at which point I’d ask for a translator. “But you speak Russian!” they’d say. “Yup, but I don’t read it. Sorry. Translator, please.” At this point they’d usually say “Okay, but our translators come from the FSB. You know FSB? Bad guys. If they come out, you are in trouble. Okay, I will call them.” So I’d pull out a book and start reading. I’m not half as thick as I look. I know full well that if an FSB translator is hauled away from his Sunday lunch to attend a call from a road policeman, there had better be a bomb, a body, or Boris Berezovsky waiting for him when he gets there. If he finds a dishevelled, vodka-soaked traffic cop needs a hand shaking down a Brit who has done nothing wrong, I know who’s going to be directing reindeer outside Yakutsk for the rest of his career. I knew this, and so did they. They never made the call for a translator, and after a few minutes of watching me read, they told me to clear off.

There’s a reason for this. Corrupt police, like school bullies and muggers, want an easy fix. The last thing they want is to put in effort, or else they’d have proper jobs doing something productive. The reaction they are hoping to induce is panic followed by a desperate attempt to get out of the situation by paying them off. I don’t know what the rate is, but I’ve heard of people paying $100 and more to escape the clutches of the Lagos traffic police. If they see somebody is not panicked, they will try to bait you into a confrontation. Once you’re in an argument, which with a Nigerian policeman would be described as heated after the first sentence, you’re playing into their hands. Having failed to find an original offence, you’re likely offering them another on a plate. It’s a lot harder to manufacture an incident with somebody who is largely ignoring you and meekly saying “okay, sure” when you accuse them of committing a criminal offence by not signing a paper. That puts the ball back in his court, because he now needs to do something about it. But what he really wants is for you to offer to do something about it by handing over a fistful of cash. By not doing so, you’re making him work for his money and that isn’t what he joined up for at all, oh no.

Also, as one of my colleagues pointed out today when I told him the story, by occupying himself with me – and getting nowhere – he is missing out on lots of other “customers” who are driving by unmolested. I’m taking up the lucrative spot in the road which he uses to shake people down. If he’s not making money out of me, he’s losing out. Not being completely dim, he realises this and lets me go. It was the exact same in Russia. So long as I was sat in the front seat of the patrol car reading a book and waiting for a translator, they couldn’t process anyone else. They have probably been at this game long enough to know how much they can expect per hour and how long they have to extort cash out of somebody before they start cutting into their revenue stream. If you can front it out this long, you’re probably home free.

Of course, this all depends on whether or not you have done something wrong. If you have, you’d better cough up – some now or more later. Hours and hours later, on the other side of town. What’s bad about Lagos, and I never saw this in Russia, is the traffic police and other authorities will simply pull you over and declare you have jumped a red light or made an illegal turn. Complete lies of course, but it’s your word against theirs and – their superiors being in on the racket – you’re never going to win.

So was I in the wrong today? Initially, I thought I was. When I got back to the office, I looked at the documents. One was a receipt from the registration centre, the other was some form I filled in at the garage. Neither am I obliged to carry in my car, much less sign them. I could have thrown them in the bin at any point and been no more an outlaw than before. I don’t know whether this policeman was genuinely ignorant – I’ve seen cleverer looking farmhands in West Wales – or if he was trying it on regardless. I suspect the latter, given he made sure he got rid of me long before the intervention team arrived. Either way, all pretty unpleasant, but compared to some of the stories I hear from my colleagues involving the traffic police (or impersonators), I got off lightly.

*Nigerian police motto. Seriously.

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Aspiring journalists should ignore Oliver Kamm’s career advice

Staying on the topic of Macron, Putin, and Russia Today, Times columnist Oliver Kamm had this to say:

I believe that Oliver Kamm is an excellent writer and fully deserves his slot at the Times, but let’s not pretend he got there wholly on merit: he is the son of a famous publisher and equally famous publisher/translator, his maternal grandfather founded the Times crossword, and he is the nephew of BBC correspondent Martin Bell. Kamm giving young journalists career advice is a bit like Chelsea Clinton telling aspiring writers how to get a piece in Variety magazine.

Oliver Kamm personifies the metropolitan, pro-European elite which flourished under New Labour and, if their comments around Brexit are anything to go by, are wholly out of touch with the rest of the population. His remark about Russia Today is more reflective of the snobbery that is rife in such circles than a condemnation of Russia’s media outlets.

Let me be frank: RT peddles pro-Kremlin propaganda and they have all sorts of cranks and idiots invited on to speak. They routinely engage in misinformation campaigns, and the one they embarked on following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was particularly despicable. I am not here to defend RT’s content or editorial policies.

But are the likes of the BBC any better? Or CNN? Actually, yes they are. But the problem is the likes of Kamm believe the BBC, CNN, and the others are paragons of virtue, whereas I would say that there are serious shortcomings with all of them, particularly their obvious bias when it comes to any given issue. Is the BBC’s relentless anti-Trump coverage any better than RT’s pro-Kremlin output? Probably yes, but there’s not a whole lot in it. And RT never pretends to be impartial, unlike the BBC. And that’s what gets me: the metropolitan media elite lack the self awareness to realise that they are guilty of the same charges they level at their competitors.

What is also telling is that Kamm appears to think the editorial credibility of a particular outlet is all that matters when building a career in media. Of course, one would hardly expect somebody who was parachuted straight into a national broadsheet to understand this, but some clue would have been nice. Working for an outfit like RT would be valuable experience for anyone wanting a career in media: regardless of their editorial policies, their production qualities are top-notch and I suspect they cover the non-controversial stories with as much professionalism as any other station. You might as well tell young engineers not to work for BAe because they supply cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.

Of course, what Kamm means is that by working for RT a young journalist would find themselves shunned from those who occupy the London media bubble, not shut out of the entire global industry. What if the young journalist was Russian, for example? A Russian friend of a friend works for RT in London, and was sent to Paris to cover the anti-capitalist protests last year. Was her career suffering? Didn’t look like it. Should a young Portuguese journalist avoid RT because they might find themselves shut out of the London-based media as a result? For a bunch who are forever wailing about Brexit and sucking up to the Europeans, these metropolitan elites are really quite parochial and can’t see past the M25, let alone beyond Europe’s major cities.

And while we’re on the subject of credibility, Oliver Kamm was and still is an ardent supporter of Tony Blair and New Labour, hopes that Macron will govern in the same vein, and believes that the “liberal interventionism” characterised by Blair, i.e. bombing third-world nations in order to bring peace, is something to be advocated.

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Macron, Putin, and the term “LGBT”

Lefties on social media were all wetting their knickers last night at the news that French president Emmanuel Macron “stood up” to Putin at their meeting in Versailles by labelling Russia Today and Sputnik of being “organs of influence and propaganda” against his campaign.

Judging by some of the comments, one would think Macron wrested back control of the Crimea rather than complained about media outlets. Others think this shows that Macron has far more backbone than Donald Trump who didn’t confront Putin over Russia’s meddling in the US election (possibly because he, like most of us, is still waiting for evidence that they did). It seems that in Macron the progressive media has found a new darling to replace Obama, and we can expect them to write endless puff-pieces every time he says something. Whether they’ll report honestly on what he actually does is another matter entirely.

But Macron’s criticism of RT and Sputnik isn’t what I want to talk about just yet. I am more interested in this part of his speech:

French president Emmanuel Macron says he has urged Vladimir Putin to ensure that the rights of LGBT people are protected following allegations of a crackdown on gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Macron added that President Putin told him he had started a number of initiatives with regard to the Chechen LGBT community. Previously, Putin said he would talk to the prosecutor general and interior minister regarding an investigation.

I have watched a video of the original speech and Macron uses the term LGBT, not gay men, which appears to be the norm among progressives these days.

One of the things I find quite strange is that gay men appear to be quite content to be described as LGBT, lumping them in with transsexuals. The reason I find it strange is because in doing so they will find it a lot harder to be accepted in places like Russia where they are having a tough time of it. I can understand it on one level: progressive gay men in the west who enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else want to show solidarity with another minority group who aren’t as well accepted. But throwing your lot in with a much smaller group that isn’t as well accepted might not be the smartest approach for gay men in the long term.

Despite the best efforts of progressives backed by an entire grievance industry, transsexuals are not anywhere near as accepted by the general population as gays, and this applies anywhere (even Thailand). Part of this is because of what the population is being asked to accept. With gay men, we are simply asked to accept that some men prefer other men to women and not to punish them for following through on those desires. In this modern age, most people can and do accept such a request. But with the transsexuals we are being asked – nay, told – to accept that a man can become a woman by changing their clothes, mutilating their genitals, or simply by deciding they are a woman. Even reasonable, open-minded people are struggling with this because it feels as though they are being forced to accept something ridiculous in the name of social justice. Furthermore, we are not being asked to merely accept that these people are different, we are being told to address them in the manner they demand and that they are entitled, among other things, to use whichever bathroom or changing rooms they please.

Even in enlightened places such as the USA and UK there is a considerable rift opening up between what the progressives are demanding and what the general population is happy with on the subject of transsexuals. Your average middle class dad doesn’t mind gays and probably wouldn’t have his life ruined if his son turned out to be gay. But he’s never going to be very happy with a 16 year old boy wandering around the changing rooms where his 14 year old daughter gets in and out of her swimming costume.

By throwing in their lot with the transsexuals, I think gay men have scored a massive own goal. Macron talked to Putin about the “LGBT community” in Chechnya. Let me put Le President straight on this point, if you excuse the pun: there is no LGBT community in Chechnya. There are gay men in Chechnya and they are being treated abominably, but there is no LGBT community in the way the term is understood on, say, an American university campus. If Macron (or anyone else) wants to help gay men in Chechnya they should refer to them as gay men, not wrap them up in terms of a community that simply doesn’t exist. He has now handed Putin a perfect excuse not to do anything about it: he can come back and simply say that he went to Chechnya and couldn’t find this LGBT community of which Macron spoke.

But that’s only half the issue. Unlike us in the west, the Russian government appears to have little interest in browbeating its population into accepting gays and trannies. Therefore the only way gays are going to see their position in Russia improve is if the general population learns to accept them, and by far the best way of doing that is to demonstrate that they aren’t much different from normal folk and it’s really nobody’s business what they get up to in private. I suspect a lot of Russians would be on board with that: despite the hostility towards gays in Russia, most middle class Russians aren’t about to go gay-bashing and I’m not even sure they approve of the skinheads doing it. From the ones I have canvassed in my social circles, it is more a question of them rolling their eyes and laughing a little rather than foaming-at-the-mouth hatred towards gays. I’d say Russians are somewhere around where the UK was in the 1960s, with the new generations becoming a lot more tolerant than the last.

But what Russians are a long, long way from accepting is the idiocy that is being rammed down the throat of westerners regarding transsexuals. Gay men they might accept, but men “choosing” to become women and demanding to use women’s toilets, no. One of the most effective arguments authoritarian government use to repress gays is one which suggests that turning a blind eye to gays results in a slippery slope of degeneracy which can lead to outcomes nobody wants or expected. Unfortunately, these arguments can be amply supported by pointing to intolerant, ridiculous cases in the west, such as the man who recently got arrested for heckling Caitlyn Jenner or the Christian bakers.

Macron’s use of the term LGBT may have won him praise in liberal circles in the west, but it will not have helped gay men in Chechnya (or anywhere else in Russia) one jot. When Putin returns home he doesn’t need to explain to the Russian people that Macron asked him to stop bashing gay men; he can instead say that Macron asked him to ensure the rights of transsexuals are upheld. Most Russians will have no idea what this even means, and those that do will be quite sure they don’t want that to happen. The end result is ordinary Russians will feel under no obligation to push their government to end the bashing of gay men, and some will even think it necessary.

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Bit of a risk for a few bitcoins

I am reading from various reports that the Wannacry ransomware attack that has laid bare the deficiencies in the IT security of the NHS has also affected many Russian companies, not least Sberbank and the Russian railways.

Sberbank is a state-owned company. A lot of the most skilled and prolific hackers and IT security experts are Russian, many of whom will be living in Russia. Depending on whose toes have been trodden on at Sberbank or the other affected companies, some nasty people might well be deploying considerable resources in trying to find out the origins of this software. If so, don’t be surprised if those responsible are found. And then found again, some months later, badly decomposed in a shallow grave in a forest.

I doubt anyone will have much sympathy.

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Russian ship sinking: it’s all relative

Not the Russian navy’s finest hour:

A Russian naval intelligence ship sank off Turkey’s Black Sea coast on Thursday after colliding with a vessel carrying livestock and all 78 personnel on board the navy ship were evacuated, Turkish officials said.

The rescued crew members of the Russian ship Liman were in good health after the collision with the Togo-flagged Youzarsif H, Turkey’s Transport Minister Ahmed Arslan said.

The incident took place in fog and low visibility 18 miles (29 km) from Kilyos village on the Black Sea coast just north of Istanbul.

A spokesman for Hammami Livestock which owns the Youzarsif H said there had been no loss of life on board the vessel. “It is considered a slight hit, for us,” he told Reuters in Lebanon, adding he had no information about the cause of the collision.

So, a lot of Russian surveillance equipment lost but no cows. I refer to this article as an excuse to cite my favorite story regarding the Russian navy: the Dogger Bank Incident.

The Dogger Bank incident (also known as the North Sea Incident, the Russian Outrage or the Incident of Hull) occurred on the night of 21/22 October 1904, when the Russian Baltic Fleet mistook a British trawler fleet from Kingston upon Hull in the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea for an Imperial Japanese Navy force and fired on them. Russian warships also fired on each other in the chaos of the melée. Three British fishermen died and a number were wounded. One sailor and a priest aboard a Russian cruiser caught in the crossfire were also killed. The incident almost led to war between Britain and Russia.

Why the hell would the Russians think a British trawler in the North Sea was a Japanese warship? Because:

The Russian warships involved in the incident were en route to the Far East, to reinforce the 1st Pacific Squadron stationed at Port Arthur, and later Vladivostok, during the Russo-Japanese War. Because of the fleet’s alleged sightings of balloons and four enemy cruisers the day previously, coupled with “the possibility that the Japanese might surreptitiously have sent ships around the world to attack” them, the Russian admiral, Zinovy Rozhestvensky, called for increased vigilance, issuing an order that “no vessel of any sort must be allowed to get in among the fleet”, and to prepare to open fire upon any vessels failing to identify themselves. With ample reports about the presence of Japanese torpedo boats, submarines and minefields in the North Sea, and the general nervousness of the Russian sailors, 48 harmless fishing vessels were attacked by the Russians, thousands of miles away from enemy waters.

As military blunders go, this one is hard to beat. As The Times said the next day:

“It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target.”

Hitting a boatload of cattle in fog off Turkey seems almost professional by comparison.

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Getting it Wrong on Russia

Back in February I lamented the fact that finding sensible commentary on Russia is difficult because when it comes to that particular nation, people’s views fall into one of the following two categories:

1. Russia is America’s number one enemy, they rigged the US election in order to install their puppet Trump, they are hell-bent on taking over Europe by force and they must be confronted in Syria.

2. Russia is absolutely no threat to Europe, Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia and the annexation was perfectly above-board, they have been forced to launch a war in Eastern Ukraine because of Western plans to encircle them, they are directly threatened by NATO and they have shown us all how things ought to be done in Syria.

A recent article in The Spectator is a good case in point:

What amazes me is that if you bring up Russia in America and Europe today, people react the way academics used to back in the 1930s if one criticized Stalin and his purges. Fifty to 100 million died in the gulags, and lefties the world over turned a blind eye; now you say one nice thing about Putin and you’re toast.

That is true, and worthy of discussion.

Towards the late-1980s, the Soviet ambassador to Athens befriended my father, the coldest warrior of them all, and convinced him that all Gorby wanted was to conduct business with the West. He also reminded him what Georgi Arbatov had told dad when he had been a guest of the government during the Moscow Olympics of 1980: the greatest danger Russia faced was not America and the West but the 40 million Muslims within the Soviet Union.

I can only assume the author cites the opinion of his Dad’s mate because he believes it is true. It’s clearly bollocks. The greatest predictable threat to Russia in the 1980s was a nuclear war with America; the greatest unknown threat turned out to be the collapse of the USSR. Presumably the author thinks the words hold true today, but even that’s a tough sell. Considering their numbers, Russia has encountered very little trouble of the Islamist variety from Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Ingush and other Muslims from the former Soviet Union. The obvious exception is with the Chechens but their push for independence and the two subsequent wars were driven as much by nationalism as Islamism (and the Chechens have always been troublemakers from Moscow’s point of view). Over time the Chechen separatists became out-and-out Islamic terrorists, but they don’t represent the biggest danger to Russia. And it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the hardcore fighters in Chechnya were foreigners, and that the most feared “Chechen” fighters who joined ISIS seem to be ethnic Russians who converted to Islam.

Either way, Russian and former-Soviet Muslims are not and never were the greatest danger facing Russia. If we want me to say what I think that is, I’d go for the insistence of its leaders to concentrate power around themselves, weaken institutions, crush any opposition, and leave no succession plan making chaos more likely each time the regime changes every generation or two. Couple that with a populous and resource-hungry China on its distant borders.

One hundred years ago, after the Tsar’s murder, westerners thought of Russia as a savage, benighted land yearning to become a second America. That was a crock, if ever there was one. Russians are a spiritual people who yearn to connect with Christ, not Wall Street.

I don’t think this chap has spent much time in Russia or around Russians. It would take one to be willfully blind not to notice how much rampant consumerism, paid for with credit cards and bank loans, has gripped Russians. A few text messages passed between family members at Easter doesn’t change that.

After the collapse of communism, America committed its greatest mistake until the Iraqi invasion 11 years later. Instead of listening to George F. Kennan, a Russian expert and diplomat extraordinaire, and to Richard Nixon, who both advised helping the new state financially as well as politically, Uncle Sam heeded neocon siren voices and encircled Russia via Nato.

And just like that, we get the full, unalloyed, Kremlin take on things. It’s hard to know where to begin. The Americans did attempt to help Russia financially and politically: they poured in billions to stop the country from collapsing completely, secure its nuclear weapons, strengthen its institutions, and get a grip on an AIDS epidemic among many other things. As things turned out the economic advice was extremely naive in that they didn’t anticipate the degree to which Russians would murder one another while transforming their economy, but that can hardly be blamed on the Americans. Sure, there was a lot of asset stripping, theft, and other dodgy practices being carried out by individuals, some of whom had state backing, but to say the Americans didn’t try to help Russia after the collapse of the USSR might as well be taken from Putin’s Top Ten List of Things to Blame on America.

What annoys me about these sort of articles is they assume Russians themselves have no agency, as if they bear no responsibility for their own situation, and are always at the mercy of the US. To counter this, I’ll refer to this post from 2007 in which I list the business-related murders in the first part of 2000 alone, a decade after perestroika. Did Americans tell them to behave like this? No. This is simply how Russians behave, American advice or not.

And this:

Uncle Sam heeded neocon siren voices and encircled Russia via Nato.

Oh please. Again, this is straight out of the Kremlin book of propaganda. The Nato expansion was more about a bureaucratic organisation wanting to increase its headcount and footprint more than a grand strategy to encircle Russia. Had America wanted to destroy Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, they would have done so. As I said here:

By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Now I will concede that some Nato actions – the bombing of Serbia, for example – might be construed as offensive and give Putin & Co some cause for concern, but the idea that Nato represents any sort of threat to Russia is laughable. I am quite sure that the Russians themselves don’t believe it either, no matter how much they repeat it for political purposes.

Neocons then doubled down on their folly by convincing an idiotic president and his poodle Tony Blair to invade Iraq. A trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of dead later, not a single neocon has been jailed or tried for their crimes. But Putin has been demonised by those same neocons and their networks, and by newspapers such as the Mexican-owned New York Times.

So the idiocy of the Iraq War makes Putin off-limits for criticism? I agree that the neo-cons have no moral ground on which to criticise Putin, but it doesn’t make them wrong. Not that I think they are right either, but the premise is daft.

The Nato expansion into the former Soviet block is now being called a ‘tragic mistake’ by those of us not taken in by neocon propaganda. There was bound to be an authoritarian backlash in Russia as a result.

And there we have the Russians’ lack of agency again. Incorporating the Czech Republic into Nato in 1999 simply forced Putin to embark on aggressive, anti-western policies in 2007.

And then there is the monstrously corrupt privatisation, sanctioned by a drunken Yeltsin. (Chelsea fans and other beneficiaries in London and New York should put up a statue of the drunk. Swiss and Bahama-based bankers pray for him daily.)

The author  appears not to realise that the person he is praising and his entourage are the prime beneficiaries of this monstrously corrupt privatisation. Does he think Putin and Roman Abramovich are enemies? But again, note how a drunk Russian presiding over a corrupt privatisation programme from which ruthless Russian gangsters benefited is something to be blamed on foreigners.

Of course, there is a reason for all this nonsense, and it is contained in a paragraph near the start of the article:

I’ve recently been reading rather a lot about RT. My friend, the film director James Toback — who directed the greatest movie of all time, Seduced and Abandoned — tells me it is the only news channel he watches in New York. I may be biased against the BBC and American networks because of their hypocritical claim of impartiality (as impartial as Saudi clerics judging a Jewish smuggler), but I love RT as it doesn’t do fake news. And, unlike American broadcasters, it has a sense of humour.

Russia Today doesn’t do fake news? Right.

The author has made the same mistake most people do when commenting on Russia: they have (rightly) understood that the Western, mainstream media is wrong, biased, or both and stumbled across Russia Today. They have then, for reasons unknown only to themselves, abandoned all skepticism and accepted without question what they see and hear from the Kremlin-run channel. I have noticed a similar thing with some of my friends on Facebook: they have realised that the BBC is unreliable and so start posting quotes from Zerohedge, as if they are any more truthful.

The idea that perhaps the situation with Russia is complex, each issue must be viewed separately, and the truth lies somewhere between the BBC/CNN and RT escapes most contemporary commentators. Perhaps Putin isn’t benign, but maybe he’s not quite like Saddam Hussein either. Sure, Russia might have legitimate concerns over Nato’s behaviour, but that did not compel them to embark on land-grabs and launch an insurrection in East Ukraine. There is some middle ground here, but boy do I feel like I’m ploughing a lonely furrow through it.

(As an aside, some advice for the author after reading this passage:

And speaking of girls, at our last summer party, towards the end, when I was well fuelled, I met Olga, a very pretty Russian who works for Russia Today. Olga has perfect manners, something her male counterparts are not famous for, and is well spoken and graceful. Even the MoMC thought her too good for me when they met at my birthday party.

For those of us who have spent time in Russia, few things come across as more nauseating than a middle-aged Western man, having encountered a Russian woman for the first time in his life, telling people about it.)

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The Referendum in Turkey

So Turkish citizens at home and abroad have decided they want a presidential system of government rather than a parliamentary one. This makes them more like France than Britain. So far so meh.

The change has been pushed by the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who spent eleven years as prime minister. The change has been sold on the basis that Turkey is facing various threats – terrorism, separatists Kurds, refugees, a civil war next door – and without these changes things will only get worse. The campaign for change was run not merely on the basis that an executive president will be able to better manage these issues, but that Erdoğan was uniquely placed to deal with them personally. The result was not so much a reflection of Turkey’s desire to be ruled by a president as much as a desire to be ruled by Erdoğan himself.

I say this because the result surprised me. Erdoğan has always polled around the 51-52% mark and because of this many people believed the same split would occur in this referendum. But referenda are not elections. Elections are between two or more candidates and one must make a choice, often while holding one’s nose. A referendum usually has nothing to do with the individuals involved, and a fine example of this was Brexit: nobody wanted Nigel Farage as a Prime Minister and UKIP did not poll particularly well in General Elections. But people still voted to leave anyway, because the issue of EU membership was detached from ordinary party politics and the individuals who represent them. Initially I thought this might be the same in Turkey, only to be proven quite wrong when the results came out. It is looking obvious that the constitutional changes being voted on were inextricably linked to Erdoğan himself.

There’s nothing new here, and the number of parallels that can be drawn between Erdoğan and others is long. The most obvious is with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. He managed to sidestep presidential term limits in 2008 by moving to prime minister, taking his powers with him and installing a puppet in the form of Dmitry Medvedev as president, before the two swapped positions again in 2012. Since at least 2007, Putin has drummed up fears of Russia facing terrible threats, mainly in the form of alleged Western plots to encircle and then dismember Russia (possibly massacring all its people in the process), that he is uniquely placed to deal with. Putin has positioned himself such that Russia is Putin and vice versa, and without him the entire nation will be at the mercy of nefarious foreigners who (for some reason that is never quite explained) hate Russia and Russians. This sort of rhetoric plays well in Russia, and Putin is genuinely popular as a result (although how much, in the absence of a free press and a decent opposition, is open to question). Russians have always been ready to buy into the idea that foreigners want them destroyed and throughout their history they have been happy to be ruled by an authoritarian strongman and adopt a siege mentality, eating raw potatoes and shivering in the dark in defiance of their enemies who, if we’re honest, barely know they exist.

Erdoğan seems to be adopting a similar approach. He has ramped up the rhetoric against the West, promoting himself as the natural leader of the Islamic world and determined to make Turkey a force to be reckoned with. While Putin fancies himself as the next Catherine the Great, Erdoğan wants to be seen as the next Ataturk (or possibly an Ottoman Sultan). In other words, he’s a man in search of  a legacy, and I’ve written about this before:

So what of Putin’s legacy? If Russia hangs onto Crimea, which it probably will, it might warrant a note in a history book somewhere (offered as much prominence as Khrushchev’s transfer of the peninsula in 1954, which few knew about until recently). But it’s hardly the stuff to warrant a mention alongside Katherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible. As I said at the beginning of this post, the modern-day politician (of which Putin is one, no matter how much he wishes he belonged to another era) just doesn’t think big enough to create a proper legacy. In the grand scheme of things, the annexation of Crimea is mere fiddling, and expensively at that.

Like his predecessors, Putin found even with seemingly unlimited political power, plenty of popular support, and no opposition that Russia was fiendishly difficult to change. It has not become the great power that he wanted, feared and respected by all. Addressing the issues of corruption, collapsing demographics, alcoholism, an economy dependent on oil and gas exports, and a largely conscripted military have all proven to be beyond Putin’s capabilities and probably anyone else’s as well. With the exception of the Crimean land grab, very little has changed in Russia since 2008 that is not directly attributable to the waxing and waning of the global economy and the oil price. There is a lot of inertia in a nation and they are often resistant to change (ask the French): Putin has proven that it takes a lot more than an authoritarian strongman with plenty of angry rhetoric to take a country in a new direction in the twenty-first century.

I suspect Erdoğan will find much the same thing. Indeed, I’d say his job is only just beginning. He’s put himself forward as the man who will solve the twin issues of Kurdish separatism and jihadist terrorism single-handedly and the nation has given their approval for him to do so. Well, good luck with that. All eyes on you, old chap. And unlike Putin he doesn’t have anywhere near the popular support that his Russian counterpart enjoys: his referendum scraped through 51% to 49% and the three largest cities voted No. If he isn’t delivering results soon he might find himself somewhat under siege himself. Sure, he can crack more heads and throw more people in jail and increase the hyperbole against the West and the half of the country that don’t support him, but that will only make his job more difficult. And he also faces the challenge of keeping Turkey’s economy growing while all this is going on. I suspect foreign investors are already nervous of putting money into a place where an all-powerful president is now railing against the EU and banging the Islamist drum ever-louder. Like Putin, much of his popularity will depend on how much he can keep ordinary Turks convinced their lives are getting better under his rule, and that for most people means jobs and money. It is true that much of Turkey is shit-poor and this will not be a difficult feat to pull off, but Turkey has no real history of hunkering down for a lengthy siege against imaginary outside enemies bent on their destruction and taking the lifestyle hit that this entails. By contrast, one would be forgiven for thinking Russians have to adopt this pose in order to feel fully alive.

My guess is not much will change in Turkey. Sure, opposition politicians will find their heads cracked and journalists will be chucked in jail and the state institutions will become thoroughly corrupted. But it’s not like this wasn’t happening before. What sort of freedom of expression did Communists or Islamists enjoy under the old regime? Not that I like either group, but there’s not been a fundamental shift here, merely the targets of the police batons have changed. The more Erdoğan tries to build his “legacy”, the more he will get bogged down in intractable problems that lie deep within Turkish society and he will begin to make a serious of blunders which, thanks to his lofty new position, will have his name all over them. Erdoğan doesn’t even have the luxury of being a new face that can expect a honeymoon period of a few years. As I said before:

There are limits to what people can do in office, and that is often driven by time. A two-term president in the US is usually in charge of a very tired administration in the final couple of years, regardless of how good they’ve been beforehand. Even New Labour’s supporters were glad to see the back of Tony Blair after 10 years as Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street a tired shadow of the vibrant woman who had entered almost 12 years previously; and despite the economic boom and rise in living standards Australia enjoyed under 11 years of John Howard, the population felt they were in need of a change when they kicked him out. The optimum period in office for a leader in a modern democracy is approximately 7-8 years, after which their administration is plagued by various scandals, stumbling policies, tired rhetoric, and a population that has gotten tired of seeing the same damned face on the TV every night and could use a change. Even the Soviet leaders eventually departed, unable to fulfill any more promises or bring about change in the way they could when they first took over. With the exception of Stalin, few missed them.

Personally, I think he’s got a mountain to climb, one of his own making. If his current politics are anything to go by, he’ll do extremely well not to destroy the economy and usher in a lengthy period of stagnation and decline making him a figure in the vein of Hosni Mubarak. His idea that Turkey can adopt a belligerent attitude to the EU, US, as well as its regional neighbours such as Iran and Russia are delusional: a combination of any of those could make life extremely difficult for him, and if they really wanted to they could crush him pretty quickly. A mischievous foreign power could start arming the Kurds, for example, something nobody has been willing to do – yet. God knows what thoughts run through Trump’s head on any given day, but Turkey’s membership of Nato – even assuming the alliance survives – is becoming ever-more questionable, and if the country lurches towards Islamism some senator might find a bill to cease supplying Turkey with weapons to be a vote winner. Who will Erdoğan buy his equipment from then? Russia? China?

There is a chance Erdoğan turns Turkey into the next Venezuela or Iran, but frankly, who cares? Since the end of the Cold War Turkey’s strategic importance has dwindled, and other than the refugee issue (which can easily be solved if politicians so desire) the future of the West is not in any way dependent on Turkey. Sure, it’s a bit shit for the 49% who didn’t want this but it’s up to them to get themselves out of this mess. One of the big mistakes I think people are making, including a lot of Turks themselves, is believing Erdoğan’s support is made up exclusively of backward, conservative, uneducated peasants in the centre of the country. We heard the same remarks levelled at Leave voters after Brexit and Trump voters after the US presidential election. I suppose it is comforting to say that all of those who are educated, intelligent, and have been exposed to international systems all voted No in the Turkish referendum, but I have a hard time believing that 49% of the oh-so-clever part of the population lost to the 51% who are farmers who can’t read or write. The truth is that, like Trump and Leave voters, there will be plenty of Turks who are smart, educated, and well-travelled who – for various reasons – support Erdoğan. The Turks who voted No might want to find out who those people are and understand those reasons before throwing their toys out of the pram.

For me, the real danger lies in what I’ve written about before:

I hope I’m wrong about this, but Erdoğan may well have made the mistake moderate left wingers made time and time again: they purged the opposition of right-wingers but failed to notice the hardcore Communists sneaking up on their left flank, and by the time they realised the danger they were being stood against a brick wall facing a machine gun. In his hurry to neuter his political opponents and boost his support, Erdoğan may have done away with the very people he now needs to tackle extremism within Turkey and allowed extremists elements to infiltrate those institutions on which the survival of the Republic depends.

By far the biggest problem facing Turkey in the wake of this referendum is not Erdoğan but the one who succeeds him. It might be that, if people are fed up with him and want things to go back to how they were, all of these changes will be undone by the next guy who will reinstate the parliamentary system. That is the best thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is extremists think Erdoğan has not gone far enough in turning Turkey into an Islamist basket-case and get rid of him, and a headcase takes over with all these shiny new powers to play with. Then you’ll start seeing even Yes voters tossed in jail (or worse) by the thousand and they’ll learn a harsh lesson about the limits of presidential power. They’d not be the first ones.

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The BBC on Beslan

From the BBC:

Beslan school siege: Russia ‘failed to prevent’ massacre

Given a massacre happened, I’d say so, yes.

In the siege, Chechen separatists took more than 1,000 hostages, the vast majority of them children.

It ended when Russian security forces stormed the building. Survivors say the troops used excessive force.

In all seriousness, and acknowledging that the siege would have been an enormous challenge for even the world’s most proficient counter-terrorism force, the Russian response was absolutely shambolic in the most woeful sense of the word. It made Nord-Ost look like Operation Entebbe.

And this:

Presumably the chap who does the bylines is Irish.

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