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Our Russia, Ourselves 

Sleeping with the enemy . . . then scolding her

Thursday, Mar 3 2005
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During a prickly press conference at a Slovakian castle last week, President Bush scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin for his affronts to freedom and democracy. The scolding was absurd not because its essence was untrue, but because of the way the remarks were cherry-picked from a laughable double standard.

Russia and America, once enemies and opposites, are turning into much the same country. Since the end of the Cold War, it seems that the two nations have been moving steadily toward a shared value system. Also emerging from the press conference were Bush and Putin’s considerable points of agreement: Ties are closer than ever on terrorism, domestic security, arms exports, nuclear nonproliferation and economic issues.

Brushing aside for a moment Bush’s failure to chide the leaders of other notoriously autocratic governments with dismal records on human rights and press freedoms — countries with whom the U.S. has also forged close political and economic ties (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan) — Bush clearly took no offense when Putin tried to meddle in the last U.S. presidential election. In case you forgot, Vlad the Impaler endorsed Bush, announcing the day before the U.S. vote that should John Kerry be elected, the risk of a terrorist attack would soar. It was a script that could, and might, have been written by the Republican National Committee.

But when Putin clumsily tried to influence the election in Ukraine — propping up the losing candidate, Viktor Yanukovich — Secretary of State Colin Powell, with America’s lapdog press in tow, concocted a Cold War PR campaign attacking Russia for messing with the business of other countries, as though we’re above such things.

In fact, the democracy we’re now celebrating in Ukraine was largely financed with money from the United States — the details of which were comprehensively reported by Jonathan Steele in The Nation. Ukrainians I spoke with in Moscow were deeply troubled that the financial backers of the new President Yuschenko are of the same industrial mafia that looted Ukraine’s state enterprises during the privatization giveaways. This certainly wouldn’t be the first time we’ve tilted a foreign balance of power toward thieves and thugs we can do business with. Finally, contrary to portraits of a meddling Russian bear that our press has been busy painting, in a poll taken at the end of December (after Ukraine’s election), 83 percent of Ukrainians said they had a good opinion of Russia.

Putin’s most egregious crimes — according to us — are his takeover of the privately held Yukos Oil Co. and his control of three network TV stations, thereby stifling public criticism.

It’s true that the Kremlin seized Yukos, sending its Putin-bashing chairman, Mikhail Khordokovsky, to jail on allegations of tax fraud. It’s also true that our IRS made similar allegations against the NAACP — a stalwart organization that, coincidentally of course, has been harshly critical of the Bush administration. Our government’s tactics are usually more discreet — e.g., lobbyists such as USA Next smearing the American Association of Retired Persons for speaking out against Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. The New York Times reports that USA Next has pledged to spend $10 million for the hatchet job; these are the same people who underwrote the Swift Boat Veterans’ libelous slash-and-burn campaign on John Kerry’s Vietnam War record.

I’m no apologist for Putin. I was in Moscow during his re-election campaign and saw no serious television coverage of any of his competitors, which is more than suspect when the government runs all the major TV networks. (With its televised debates, American coverage of our presidential campaign was considerably richer.)

However, in January, Putin was being eviscerated on, yes, government-owned TV for cutting back pensioners’ benefits. Year after year, talk shows feature the Duma’s resident gadfly Vladimir Zhirinovsky plowing into Putin on issue after issue.

And before you criticize the shrinking of Russia’s media outlets, remember that the U.S. media — especially on television — have grown similarly consolidated and syndicated. When it comes to muzzling dissent, both Russia and America are world-class. Frank Rich recently reported in The New York Times about the virtual disappearance of the Abu Ghraib torture scandals from our print and TV media, despite new revelations — much like the continuing Russian atrocities in Chechnya that go unreported by the Russian media.

Yet our smugly superior attitude continues unabated: The Associated Press reported grimly on January 4 how Putin had removed his economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, from his Cabinet because Illarionov had criticized the Kremlin. Odd. Wasn’t Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill asked to resign for essentially the same sin? And just try protesting peacefully at the next Republican or even Democratic National Convention, or a WTO meeting, if you want to see the sweet parade of our cities’ paddy wagons.

In his L.A. Times commentary on January 9, Niall Ferguson cites Putin’s abuse of the “rule of law,” conjuring Russia’s policy of holding and torturing terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial or representation. Thank God we never do things like that. Ferguson goes so far as to compare Putin to Hitler — neglecting the tiny detail that Putin, like Bush, is under term limits, and has said repeatedly that he has no intention of running for re-election in 2008.

The fallacy of the artificial divide between Russian and American values stems from the insupportable premise that an unregulated market leads to freedom and prosperity, whereas any form of government regulation or intervention is tantamount to human bondage.

Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad, frequently jailed by Jakarta for his writings, remarked last year at Angels Gate Cultural Center that the two primary causes of misery and oppression are the government and the market. When the two work in opposition, flowers of democracy can bloom in the fissures, but when the two work in collusion, the inevitable result is tyranny.

And so, while Putin had it wrong when he defended himself against Bush’s attack on the Russian press by saying, “We didn’t criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS,” he wasn’t completely off the mark. If “those reporters” had been at Fox News, it’s unlikely they would have been fired — not because of any direct intervention by the Bush administration but because market forces favor conservative outlets over perceived liberal ones. Would Bill O’Reilly still be on the air after his sexual-harassment scandal if he were viewed as a liberal icon?

As America and Russia drift steadily closer from opposite ideological hemispheres, there’s a growing collusion between the government and market forces within both nations that threatens democracy in each. Never has the U.S. government been so voraciously involved in domestic security and foreign adventurism — in the long-term interests of America’s corporations and at the cost of many citizens’ civil rights. As Putin was seizing the privately held NTV television network for his government, our FCC was attempting to further deregulate America’s media, while imposing ever greater fines for indecency. These are not opposing impulses but part of the same conjoining process. When Putin invaded NTV, he did it under the aegis of the oil giant Gazprom, whose shareholders have an army of lobbyists in the Kremlin. Similarly, private lobbyists such as USA Next do our government’s bidding in the media, though sometimes the money flows the other way, as in the case of phony journalists hired by the government to conduct Bush’s televised town-hall meetings, as though we’re watching democracy in action — another famously Russian propaganda technique. This all provides a clue as to why Fox News, CNN and the major television networks keep propping up the administration positions, terrified of falling out of favor, why O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh dominate the country’s AM radio bands, and why Air America, or any meaningful voice of dissent, has had such a struggle.

When Putin fired American financier Boris Jordan, whom the Kremlin had chosen to run NTV, our press reported that Jordan, always a Kremlin enthusiast, was not enthusiastic enough, and that his firing was a freedom-of-speech issue. Russian Internet editor Anton Nosik disagreed, telling the Washington Post, “This is not about freedom of speech. It is about vested-interest groups fighting for money and power.” Sound familiar?

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Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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