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February 25, 2009

To Russia, With Hate

Cato Institute targets the Russkies

by Justin Raimondo

In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East [.pdf], America's name is mud, thanks to the Bush administration and its predecessors. During the Bush era, our international standing took a huge hit, with millions wondering what crazed act of aggression was going to come out of Washington next. Our militaristic foreign policy [.pdf] has alienated our friends while multiplying and emboldening our enemies.

To listen to Andrei Illarionov tell it, however, we don't have enough enemies. One more needs to be added to the list, and that is Russia.

Illarionov is a Russian citizen, formerly a top economic adviser to then-President Vladimir Putin, and a senior fellow at the ostensibly libertarian (and anti-interventionist) Cato Institute. Illarionov resigned in 2005, declaring that Russia was a dictatorship and Putin was a monster. He's spent the last few years or so telling anyone who will listen that Russia poses a military threat to the United States, and he compares any attempt to repair relations as the equivalent of Munich, an idea that Cato Institute scholar Justin Logan rightly mocked some years ago.

In any case, using his Cato credentials to make himself appear credible, Illarionov managed to get himself invited to testify at hearings held by the House committee on international affairs today, and his prepared testimony was made available by a reliable source in the Imperial City. I've dealt with Illarionov's fulminations in this space on previous occasions, but I have to say that his statement to the assembled solons in Washington has got to set some kind of record for looniness. By any standard, no matter how low, Illarionov's testimony is clearly one of the most embarrassing moments for libertarians in the history of the movement. (Warning: I've preserved the original grammar and spelling.)

According to Illarionov, the U.S. government has been falling all over itself to mollify Moscow, starting with Bill Clinton and continuing during the Bush administration, to no avail. "The outcomes of these efforts are well known," avers Illarionov. "They were outright failures. Russia has failed to be integrated fully into the community of the modern democratic peaceful nations."

This revisionist history, however, leaves out a few items, starting with the abrogation of the agreement reached by Bush I and Gorbachev to allow the fall of the East German communist regime in exchange for a pledge by the Americans not to extend NATO into Eastern Europe. Then there was the little matter of the Balkan war, in which the U.S. attacked the former Yugoslavia, without a UN mandate, killing 5,000 civilians and installing the Kosovo Liberation Army in power in Kosovo, which has since been ethnically cleansed of Serbs and is now Europe's drug capital and black market weapons dump.

To acknowledge any of this, however, would contradict the Illarionov thesis, which is that Russia today is a regime of Satanic evil, unique in all history, and the quintessential threat to the U.S., perhaps more so than al-Qaeda. According to him, the Obama administration's stance so far "strikingly resembles the beginning of the two preceding administrations' terms. We can see similar desire to improve bilateral relations, similar positive statements, similar promising gestures and visits." Hey, that sounds good to me, but not to Illarionov, because "since nothing serious has changed in the nature of political regimes in both countries it is rather hard not to expect the repetition of already known pattern – high expectations – deep disappointments – heavy failures – for the third time."

Promising gestures and visits, positive statements, an effort to improve relations – Illarionov is having none of it. Why not? Well, because "Today's Russia is not a democratic country. The international human rights organization Freedom House assigns 'Not Free' status to Russia since 2004 for each of the last five years. According to the classification of the political regimes, the current one in Russia should be considered as hard authoritarianism. The central place in the Russian political system is occupied by the Corporation of the secret police."

Freedom House, which prominently supported the invasion of Iraq and receives truckloads of U.S. taxpayer dollars through the National Endowment for Democracy scam, rates Russia on the same level as China, in spite of the regularly held elections, both for the presidency and the Duma, in which several parties, spanning the spectrum from the ultra-left Communists to the far-right nationalists, compete. Putin and his coalition of parties are somewhere in the middle. This is glossed over by both Freedom House and Illarionov, who complain that the government party is "repressing" the opposition, because, you see, they keep winning elections.

Yet any reference to actual facts is out of place in Illarionov's worldview, as the following makes all too clear. In a section entitled "The Corporation of Secret Police," he lays out his diagnosis of what lies behind the Russian state:

"The personnel of Federal Security Service – both in active service as well as retired one – form a special type of unity (non-necessarily institutionalized) that can be called brotherhood, order, or corporation. The Corporation of the secret police operatives (CSP) includes first of all acting and former officers of the FSB (former KGB), and to a lesser extent FSO and Prosecutor General Office. Officers of GRU and SVR do also play some role. The members of the Corporation do share strong allegiance to their respective organizations, strict codes of conduct and of honor, basic principles of behavior, including among others the principle of mutual support to each other in any circumstances and the principle of omerta. Since the Corporation preserves traditions, hierarchies, codes and habits of secret police and intelligence services, its members show high degree of obedience to the current leadership, strong loyalty to each other, rather strict discipline. There are both formal and informal means of enforcing these norms. Violators of the code of conduct are subject to the harshest forms of punishment, including the highest form."

In short: Russia is ruled by a secret brotherhood of the KGB, which never really surrendered power. The members of this secret brotherhood have retained complete control over the whole of Russian society, and they have managed to do this because they are a breed apart:

"Members of the Corporation are trained and inspired with the superiority complex over the rest of the population. Members of the Corporation exude a sense of being the bosses that superior to other people who are not members of the CSP. They are equipped with membership perks, including two most tangible instruments conferring real power over the rest of population in today's Russia – the FSB IDs and the right to carry and use weapons." [Emphasis in original.]

Of course, no one in Washington has a superiority complex. And as for our officials exuding "a sense of being the bosses" – why, it's unthinkable! One is puzzled by Illarionov's tunnel vision: after all, the right to carry and use weapons is not, alas, universally recognized in the U.S., either, and is increasingly under attack. Does that mean we're living in a totalitarian state? Get serious.

This secret society, the "CSP," according to Illarionov, controls everything and everyone in today's Russia. Oh, he goes on to assure us, there are a few dissidents;"not everyone" in the Russian government is a slave of this pervasive neo-Communist conspiracy. However, the all-powerful CSP lurks behind the scenes, pulling the strings on its puppets and directing the state. Their efforts, he claims, are increasingly aggressive, and increasingly directed against America:

"The TV channels, radio, printed media are heavily censored with government propaganda disseminating cult of power and violence, directed against democrats, liberals, westerners and the West itself, including and first of all the U.S. The level of the anti-U.S. propaganda is incomparable even with one of the Soviet times in at least 1970-s and 1980s."

What Illarionov means by "censored" is not government censorship. There is no government agency that censors the media, poring over news copy and commentary for evidence of anti-government opinions. Instead, what exists is a certain uniformity of opinion in "mainstream" Russia media outlets, which are owned by pro-government businessmen, powerful figures in the top echelons of the nation's crony-capitalist elite. To a lesser degree, this is precisely what we must endure here in the U.S. – a mainstream media owned by corporations feeding off the government teat, who present a united front when it comes to the important issues of the day, including the question of war and peace.

Illarionov seems to have slipped into an alternate timeline, a fantasy land in which Russia has reverted to the 1930s and a single party wields absolute power. According to him,

"Since 1999 there is no free, open, competitive parliamentary or presidential election in Russia. The last two elections – the parliamentary one in December 2007 and presidential one in March 2008 – have been conducted as special operations and been heavily rigged with at least 20 mln ballots in each case stuffed in favor of the regime candidates. None of the opposition political parties or opposition politicians has been allowed either to participate in the elections, or even to be registered at the Ministry of Justice."

This is quite simply a lie – and a preposterous one, at that. Since 1999, Russia has had three presidential elections in which an average of half a dozen major candidates were on the ballot, along with the parliamentary slates of at least a few dozen political parties. Along with United Russia, the Putinite party, the Russian voter has many other choices: the Communists, the Agrarians, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Party of Russian, the Russian Democratic Party, the Union of Right Forces, Fair Russia, Civilian Power, the Party of Social Justice, and the list goes on. In America, we get to choose between only two parties, both of which are subsidized and privileged by the state and federal governments.

Illarionov and other "libertarian" enemies of Russia complain that Putin and his successor, Medvedev, garnered over 70 percent of the vote, but even if one allows for the usual amount of fraud – is Moscow that different from Chicago in that respect? – polls show Putin and his party are overwhelmingly popular with the Russian people. You can't complain about the lack of real "democracy" in Russia, then complain about the outcome when Putin and his pals rack up victory after victory at the polls.

Illarionov claims there are "about 80 political prisoners in the country who are serving their terms for their views and political activities." He only names one: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire businessman convicted of tax evasion, corruption, money-laundering, and murder, among other crimes. The others, whom he doesn't mention, are members of the National Bolshevik Party, led by Eduard Limonov, whose political philosophy and methods can bested be summed up by the party's symbol: a black hammer-and-sickle emblazoned on a white circle against a red background. Limonov's ideology is based on ultra-nationalism, a deep and abiding hatred of all things Western, and an openly nihilistic glorification of violence. NBP members have engaged the police in pitched battles and taken over government buildings, and they recruit among skinhead gangs and the dregs of Russian society.

The National Bolsheviks, in cooperation with chess champion Gary Kasparov, have created an anti-Putin coalition, "the Other Russia," which has met with a notable lack of success in mobilizing anyone beyond Limonov's loonies and other groups better known in the West than they are in Russia.

All of this is pretty standard stuff for the Russophobes: we've heard the same line for quite a few years, ever since Richard Perle declared that Russia must be expelled from the G-8 for the crime of not supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Dick Cheney accused Moscow of launching an "oil war" against its neighbors. Illarionov takes up Cheney's war cries, listing a series of alleged wars waged by the Russians in the years since Putin's rise to power:

"Wars against other nations.

"Since 2004 the Russian political regime embarked on a series of wars of different kinds against foreign nations. The list of wars waged in the last 5 years is not a short one:

Russian-Byelorussian Gas War 2004,

First Russian-Ukrainian Gas War, January 2006,

Russian-Georgian Energy Supply War, January 2006,

Russian-Georgian Wine and Mineral Water War, March-April 2006,

Russian-Georgian Spy War, September-October 2006,

Russian-Estonian Monuments and Cyber War, April-May 2007,

Russian-Georgian Conventional War, April-October 2008,

Russian-Azerbaijan Cyber War, August 2008,

Second Russian-Ukrainian Gas War, January 2009,

Anti-US full fledged Propaganda War, 2006-2009."

"Wars of different kinds": a slippery phrase that lacks any precise definition, and, in Illarionov's hands, can mean anything, or, more often, nothing. In the case of these mysterious "gas wars," it means simply adjusting the price of Russia's oil and natural gas output to reflect global market conditions. Ever since the incorporation of, for example, Ukraine into the old USSR, the Kremlin subsidized its oil and gas exports to that country, as well as to the other members of the Soviet bloc. With the fall of communism and the rise of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, the Russians sought to finally end the subsidies and save some money – this is what Illarionov, who works for Washington's premier "free market" think-tank, the Cato Institute, means by the Russians launching a "gas war." Will wonders never cease?

And what is this "Russian-Georgian Wine and Mineral Water War" of March-April 2006 all about? Why, that's when Russia – in response to plenty of Georgian provocations – banned the importation of Georgian wine and mineral water. This may be unwise economically, but is it really the equivalent of a "war"? Does this mean that the U.S. declared war on China when it increased tariffs on the import of Chinese-made toys? Are we smack dab in the middle of the Sino-American Toy War of 2009, without even knowing it? Get real.

I see that, in addition to the fabled "Russian-Estonian Cyber War" of April-May 2007, we also have the previously little-known "Russian-Azerbaijan Cyber War" said to have taken place in August 2008. The reality of these "cyber wars," however, is in serious doubt, given the inability of the alleged victims to trace the attacks back to the Russian government. This, like so much war propaganda, appears to be a total fabrication. That Illarionov raises these "wars" as credible evidence of Russian perfidy is a perfect joke.

Unsurprisingly, Illarionov repeats the assertion, since widely debunked, that Russia invaded Georgia last year, instead of the other way around. He simply ignores the reporting that proves Georgian aggression preceded the Russian response.

Illarionov descends into a parody of himself as he notes that the title of the hearing is "From Competition to Collaboration: Strengthening the U.S.-Russian Relationship," and goes on to deliver a rant to end all warmongering rants, grammar and spelling as in the original:

"Policy of the proclaimed 'cooperation,' 'movement from competition to collaboration,' 'improvement of relations' with the current political regime in Russia has very clear consequences. Such type of behavior on the part of the US administration can not be called even a retreat. It is not even an appeasement policy that is so well known to all of us by another Munch decision in 1938. It is a surrender. It is a full, absolute and unconditional surrender to the regime of the secret police officers, chekists and Mafiosi bandits in today's Russia. … And therefore it is an open invitation for new adventures of the Russian Chekists' regime in the post-Soviet space and at some points beyond it.

"The very term for such type of policy has not been chosen by me, it is borrowed from the title of this hearing, namely, collaboration. Therefore the term chosen for the agents of the US administration's policy in the coming era is 'collaborationists.'" [Emphasis in original.]

Russia, says the Cato Institute's Illarionov before a full committee of Congress, is preparing for war – and so should we. This is nonsense, of course, dangerous nonsense, as is Illarionov's "Anti-US full fledged Propaganda War [of] 2006-2009." Putin, like most Cato employees, opposed the Iraq war and warned that the U.S. was alienating its friends around the world by engaging in aggressive wars, another favored Cato theme.

Russia, although nuclear-armed, has neither the resources nor the desire to engage the U.S. or its allies militarily. Illarionov's sole evidence for this is an uproarious list of "cyber wars" and "gas wars" supposedly launched by the Kremlin, phantom "aggression" that exists entirely in Illarionov's embittered and monomaniacal mindset. The obscene reality is that he's trying like heck to get us involved in a real shooting war with the Russkies, all based on his ludicrous conspiracy theories about the "unique" evil supposedly represented by the Russian state.

At a moment when Russia's relations with the U.S. are at a particularly plastic juncture and could go either way – toward a new Cold War, or toward a new era of mutual understanding – to have this lunatic testify before a committee of Congress representing a supposedly libertarian perspective is sheer criminality. Shame on the Cato Institute for allowing this nut-bar to sully their name with his disgraceful "testimony."

Russia is emerging from the nightmare of Communism astonishingly intact. It's a miracle the country survived the Yeltsin years, when the nation was looted by "former" communist apparatchiks who seized control of the nation's resources in a series of rigged "privatizations." There is hardly any democratic tradition in Russia, and liberalism is a minority viewpoint rather than the majority mindset: long-standing habits die hard, particularly in a nation as mired in history and tragedy as Russia. Given all this, it's amazing they have elections – relatively free and open ones – in Russia at all. It wasn't so long ago that Stalin's gulags held millions. Now Illarionov wants us to go to war with the Kremlin over a grand total of 80 "political prisoners" of dubious provenance. What a joke – except nobody's laughing. These are deadly serious matters, and it's disturbing that Congress would even entertain the rantings of someone so manifestly un-serious.

~ Justin Raimondo



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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000). He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996).

He is a contributing editor for The American Conservative, a Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, and an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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