In Search of Putin’s Russia Reclaiming the Empire – Part 3

In Search of Putin’s Russia – Part 3 Reclaiming the Empire

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

In Part 3,  Andrei Nekrasov explores what Russian liberal intellectuals feel are the two major external threats currently facing Russia: 1) a US-sponsored coup in Ukraine that threatens to place NATO troops on Russia’s western border and 2) so-called “radical” Islam. He begins this episode by reminding us that the current Russian Federation is quite a bit smaller than pre-revolutionary Russia.

Ukraine

Nekrasov interviews a Russian Special Forces officer who served as a volunteer trainer for Russian volunteers who fought to defend the newly declared Donetsk Peoples Republic (in eastern Ukraine); a volunteer who fought in this capacity and an recent ethnic Russian immigrant from Ukraine. By 2015, when this documentary was made, over one million ethnic Russians had fled Ukraine into Russia.

The Special Forces officer complains bitterly about the government’s refusal to fund either his efforts or those of volunteer troops – although Moscow does supply tanks to Russian combatants in eastern Ukraine. Only about 20-30% of pro-independence fighters in Donbass are Russian volunteers. At least 70% are Donbass natives.

The Donbass refugee speaks quite poignantly about bombing campaigns by the Ukrainian government that deliberately target civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Dagastan

By deliberately circumventing a government checkpoint that bars entry to journalists, Nekrasov pays a visit to Dagastan, a north Caucasus region under episodic attack by Islamic separatists. He interviews a number of Muslim civilians who complain of being brutalized by Russian forces stationed there. In some cases, troops have arbitrarily sacked civilian homes and permanently destroyed power, water and sewer connections. Some women complain of male family members being “disappeared.”

Officially Putin portrays Islam as essential to the fabric of Russian society, while labeling violent extremism as inconsistent with an essentially peaceful religion.

At the same time Islamophobia is rife among the Russian population and media, which the Russian government does little to discourage.

 

Putin and the Current Russian Economy

In Search of Putin’s Russia – Part 2 Arising from the Ruble

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

In the second episode of In Search of Putin’s Russia, Russian journalist filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov examines Russia’s 2014 economic crisis, which he blames on falling oil prices and US and EU sanctions.

Overall he feels the sanctions (and more importantly Russian counter sanctions) have helped strengthen Russia’s domestic food and industrial production. At the same time the sanctions have hurt many ordinary Russians, in part due to really low salaries. For example, the average Russian teacher earns $300 a month.

The drop in the value of the ruble has led to many home foreclosures. Ever since the Soviet collapse, Russian banks only issue mortgages in foreign currencies. Because Russians are paid in rubles, they could no longer keep up with payments when the value of the ruble dropped 40% in 2014.

Access to health care is also a major issue owing to the collapse of the state-run Soviet health care system. This is especially true in rural areas where people are too poor to pay privately for care.

Most health care funding seems to come from charities, which also raise funds to keep children out of orphanages when their parents are too poor to provide for them. Russia’s current economic crisis has placed a growing number of families in this predicament.

 

 

Al Jazeera Investigates Putin: Power Mad Dictator or Popular Hero?

In Search of Putin’s Russia – Part 1 Kremlin Rules

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

This is the first in a 4-part Al Jazeera series narrated by liberal Russian journalist and filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov. It tries to offer a “balanced” examination of the extent to which civil and political liberties are tolerated and/or suppressed under Putin. The filmmakers avoid drawing firm conclusions, leaving viewers to decide whether Putin is a power mad  dictator as the Western media portrays him. The impression I came away with is that 1) Russian oligarchs, rather than Putin himself, control the levers of power and 2) Russian society is steadily moving towards “populist authoritarianism.” In both respects, it’s remarkably similar to the US.

In Part 1 Nekarsov looks at  the anti-Putin opposition parties and the extent to which the Russian government tolerates their activities. Nekarsov interviews a producer at independent self-supporting Dozhd TV, as well as members of small opposition parties the Social Democratic Party and the PARNAS (People’s Freedom) Party.

The Dozhd TV producer maintains the Russian government allows them totally free expression.

Obviously opposition parties have more limited access to state-run media at election time. Although the government regularly grants them permits to protest, they are limited to areas outside of central Moscow. Surprisingly several anti-Putin members of PARNAS support his policies in Ukraine.

Nekarsov also attends a 2015 appeal hearing by prominent Putin opponent Alexei Navalnya. The latter, along with his brother, was convicted for corruption in 2013. Alexei’s sentence was suspended while his brother remains in jail. Nemtzov learns that the Russian government helps pay the legal cost of individuals in political dispute with state authorities.*

The journalist/filmmaker also participates in an anti-Putin protest following the February 2015 assassination of Duma member and prominent Putin opponent Morris Nemtzov. Views of fellow demonstrators vary on the extent of Putin’s responsibility for Nemtzov’s death. Some carry signs accusing Putin of murder. Others believe he has lost control of his government officials and that powerful oligarchs staged the assassination to embarrass him. Still others blame the Russian government and media for deliberately promoting intolerance.

In 2017, five Chechen separatists were convicted of Nemtzov’s murder. Investigation continues into the person or persons who ordered the murder. See  New York Times


*During Putin’s first two terms as president, he introduced or oversaw the implementation of the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, increased rights to exculpatory evidence and other important legal reforms. See Rule of Law Under Putin

 

 

Putin: A Russian Primetime TV Documentary

 

Exclusive: Fantastic Russian Prime Time 2 HR Putin documentary

Masterskaya (2016)

English subtitles

Film Review

This film, despite being an obvious pro-Putin propaganda piece, provides interesting historical background on his role in thwarting western efforts to turn Russia into a third world sweatshop.

The beginning of the documentary, describing the plans laid by Putin’s cabinet to remove the oligarchs from power (see How Putin Outwitted the Russian Oligarchs ), confirm what I have always suspected: that his rise to global prominence relies heavily on his ability to choose skilled advisors.

This documentary also clearly conveys that he’s as much a populist as Donald Trump – though a far more skilled one. An amazingly effective speaker, his ability to influence and manage large groups is unparalleled among world leaders.

Although he tends to be extremely guarded about disclosing personal feelings, the film contains a few revealing clips from TV interviews. In one, he admits to his mistaken belief as a KGB agent that political conflict with the West would dissolve once Russians abandoned their Communist ideology. He now realizes that Russia will always have tension with the West based on competing geopolitical interests (ie competing demands for resources, markets, labor etc).

I was also intrigued to hear him discuss his enormous debt to teacher and mentor Anatoly Sobchak. Sobchak was a legal scholar and politician who co-wrote the constitution of the Russian Federation and was the first democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg. He died under suspicious circumstances in 2000.

The film’s main weakness is its total dismissal of Russia’s opposition movement as being too chaotic and disorganized for Putin to take seriously. While there is good reason to suspect CIA involvement in various anti-Putin street protests, it seems to be there would also be legitimate protest against the enormous obstacles to registering new political parties in Russia, as well as major censorship by the mainly state-controlled media.

I was also irritated by the repeated emphasis on Putin being a self-sacrificing leader with no interest whatsoever in personal wealth or power. According to various former insiders, Putin has immense personal wealth and may be one of the richest men in the world. See Putin Corruption: Five Things We Learned About the President’s Secret Wealth

 

How Putin Outwitted the Russian Oligarchs

The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs

Directed by Alexander Gentelev (2006)

Film Review

The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs focuses on the scandalous period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which 100 opportunist oligarchs destroyed the economy of a relatively wealthy country (with the help of the CIA, USAID, the IMF and the World Bank) by seizing $20 billion of assets for roughly a billion dollars. The admitted goal of these Russian oligarchs (and their CIA supporters) was to privatize as many industries as possible behind the scenes before the Communist majority in the Russian parliament could consolidate power and stop them. The documentary’s overarching theme concerns Putin’s rise to power in 1999, which is credited for saving the Russian economy via his shrewd confrontation and defeat of these oligarchs.

This Russian-made documentary focuses on three specific oligarchs: Mikhail Chernoy, who now lives in exile in Israel; Theodore Gusinski, who now lives in exile in Spain, and Boris Beresovksy, who now lives in exile in London. It’s divided into two parts.

Part 1

Part 1 describes how these men used privatization schemes introduce by the last Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev (under Perestroika – 1985-1991) to acquire a variety of Russian assets for pennies on the dollar. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many state-owned factories were threatened with closure, the Russian government initially privatized them through an ill-conceived voucher scheme. Ownership in the factories was broken up into millions of shares in the form of vouchers distributed to all Russian citizens. Because they had no other source of income, many were forced to sell their vouchers cheaply for food. Others were tricked into “investing” them in phoney investment schemes as their owners sold on their hoard of vouchers and pocketed the proceeds.

Chernoy wound up with hundreds of thousands of these vouchers, which he used to buy up Russia’s aluminum industry.

Using western financing, Gusinski would form Russia’s first commercial TV network in 1993. In 1994 Berezovsky (again with the help of western financing) would buy Russian state TV for a few million dollars. Joining with other oligarchs, they skillfully used their media monopoly to promote their privatization agenda.

Part 1 also covers the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev (a desperate attempt by the Communists to reverse rapid privatization); Yeltsin’s successful (CIA-backed) coup in 1993, in which he used the military to attack the Russian parliament, effectively dissolving parliament and the constitutional court; and the vast human misery caused by the “shock therapy” Wall Street imposed Russia as they looted their economy. This, in turn, would lead to escalating mass protests demanding a return of the Communists to power.

Part 2

Part 2 focuses on the oligarch (and CIA) financed and controlled election of Boris Yeltsin in 1996 – as well as the direct role the oligarchs assumed in government following Yeltsin’s victory against his more popular Communist opponent.

The Russian economy reached breaking point in 1998. By then, the Russian government had lost so main state-owned industries (75%) that it could no longer pay its debts and Russian banks froze depositors assets.

This, along with Yeltsin’s failing health, would lead to a political crisis, resulting in Vladimir Putin’s appointment as acting president initially supported by the oligarchs – in 1999. Following Putin’s election in 2000, he quickly turned on oligarch supporters, who expected to control his government as they had Yeltsin’s.

Then, as now, he excelled at media manipulation, capitalizing on popular fear of Chechen terrorism to heighten his popularity. He also shrewdly confronted individual oligarchs for tax evasion and other financial crimes during televised cabinet meetings.

This was followed up by security raids and harassment, arrest – and in some cases imprisonment – to encourage numerous oligarchs to relinquish their ill-gotten shares to state control.

In this way, Putin essentially ended Wall Street’s wholesale exploitation of the Russian economy and the Russian people – and Wall Street and the US military-intelligence complex have never forgiven him for it.

The documentary’s main weakness is its failure to explore the major role Wall Street and US intelligence played in the destruction of the Russian economy between 1991-2000. Good background on this at the following links:

The Harvard Boys do Russia

US Meddling in 1996 Russian Elections in Support of Boris Yeltsin

USA Russia

The Plunder of Russia in the 1990s

Brexit,Trump, Syria and the Fabricated War on Terror

Adam Curtis Forced Hypernormalisation BBC

Directed by Adam Curtis

Film Review

Curtis, one of my favorite documentary makers, has a unique ability to conceptualize and describe the collective psychological conditioning the political elites subject us to – and the unintended consequences  of their use of public relations (as opposed to diplomacy and statecraft) to retain power. In this fascinating documentary, he explores the link between the rise of Putin and Donald Trump, the Brexit vote in Britain and the fabricated War on Terror. He also explains Syria’s critical role in this process, dating back to Hafeez al-Asaad (1970-2000) and his dream of unifying the Arab world against western exploiting.

The Concept of Forced Hypernormalisation

According to Curtis, “forced hypernormalisation,” is a term coined by the Soviets to describe a psychological control technique in which politicians retain power by projecting a vastly oversimplified view of world. Curtis maintains that Ronald Reagan was the first president to embrace this version of popular control, as he projected US foreign policy as a simple matter of good vs evil and encouraged Americans to withdraw from frustrating social and political concerns by focusing on their individual selves.

Curtis begins his capsule history of forced hypnormalisation with the invention of the strategy of suicide bombing by Hafeez al-Asaad and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (when he was losing the Iran-Iraq WAR). Al-Assad (using Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia) would force US troops to withdraw from Lebanon with a dramatic suicide bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Through the 1980s, Syria would engage in several other dramatic anti-US suicide bombings. However because Reagan felt retaliation against Syria was too risky (due to the support al-Assad enjoyed from other Arab leaders), he would blame Gaddafi, who other Arab leaders viewed as a madman, and bomb Libya instead. Gaddafi, eager for the notoriety, was always happy to take the credit.

Incessant Shapeshifting in US and British Foreign Policy

Thus a pattern emerged where US and British foreign policy became an indistinguishable mixture of fabrication and reality. The public got their first clear view of this strategy with the fabricated reality (ie non-existent weapons of mass destruction and non-existent links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida) used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This film also includes an intriguing account (the first I have seen from mainstream media) of the 30+ year Air Force Intelligence campaign to promote popular belief in UFOs.

Putin and Non-Linear Warfare

Curtis contends Russian information specialist Vladislav Surkoff, one of the dozen or so technocrats who keep Putin in power, is also a master of this ceaseless shapeshifting geared towards undermining people’s perception of the world. It is nothing for Surkoff to simultaneously promote Russia’s antifascist movement, nationalist neo-Nazi groups, human rights groups and the Russian Orthodox Church. In foreign policy, the Russians refer to this approach as “non-linear warfare, and they have used it in the Ukraine and Syria. The end result is the west never really knows what their real intentions are.

Enter Donald Trump

Donald Trump is also a master at this type of shapeshifting, with his unique blend of extreme right wing racism and anti-corporatism.  He’s notorious for constantly reversing and contradicting himself, and his speeches are a complex mixtures of facts. The fact he’s so difficult to pin down makes it extremely difficult for the media to attack him.

Chasing Edward Snowden

Chasing Edward Snowden

Anonymous (2016)

Film Review

Chasing Edward Snowden is an extremely well made documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Moscow and the role played by Wikileaks and the Hong Kong government in facilitating his escape.

Prior to seeing the film, I was unaware Snowden (under US indictment for treason) had reached out for Wikileaks’ help nor that Putin initially turned down his asylum request when he refused to work for the FSB.

All this changed, when France, under US pressure, denied the Bolivian presidential jet access to French airspace. Acting on false rumors spread by Wikileaks, the US and France believed President Morales had smuggled Snowden onto his plane.

Because the French action contravened Geneva conventions, world opinion turned in Snowden’s favor, persuading Putin to reverse himself and grant his asylum petition.


*FSB is the Russian state security agency that replaced the KGB.