Further thoughts: Vladimir Putin’s planned constitutional changes

I had the good fortune to be among the first non-mainstream commentators to publish an in-depth analysis of the planned constitutional amendments Vladimir Putin set out on Wednesday in his annual Address to Russia’s bicameral legislature. “Vladimir Putin Plans His Succession” was a runaway success in readership, attracting many times the normal daily number of visitors to my website in a global audience that reached 82 countries. I owe this success in large part to the generous references to my article made by bloggers with large established audiences, in particular to investment analyst Tom Luongo of Gold, Goats ‘n Guns (re-broadcast by Tyler Durden’s zerohedge.com) and to the Canadian retired diplomat and active online commentator Patrick Armstrong, who commands several sites. The article was also re-posted in full by antiwar.com, who frequently carry my essays, as well as by Johnson’s Russia List, which has a select audience among U.S. universities.

Now, in these “further thoughts” I will address several important issues surrounding the planned constitutional reforms which I did not have the time or space to deal with in my first essay. Moreover, I must consider here elements of the ongoing flow of news from Russia bearing on any evaluation of the reforms, namely the results of the first meeting of the 75-member Working Group on constitutional change which Vladimir Putin convened already on Thursday and the exchanges between the incoming prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and members of the State Duma during and after his confirmation hearings.

I will deal in this essay mainly with significant matters that have not been discussed in the alternative media, not to mention in the establishment media, both of which have devoted a great number of column inches to the reforms since I first went to press.

With regard to the establishment media, it bears mention that within 24 hours of the President’s Address several newspapers of record in the United States and England published articles with a more open-minded evaluation of what is afoot than the universal opprobrium and suspicion with which Putin’s initiatives first met in the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times. Several of these articles which are more favorably disposed to Putin’s possible intent or are advocating “wait and see” were quoted in Johnson’s Russia List: the publishers include the Christian Science Monitor, The Independent (UK) and The Daily Telegraph (UK).

The Washington Post, which published a flurry of articles about the proposed constitutional changes, all negative, nonetheless permitted itself to give one article the following very restrained title: “Putin’s plans for post-presidency could see him wielding influence for life.” “Wielding influence” is a far cry from the stranglehold on Russian politics by which the Post and the great majority of its peers characterize the “Putin regime.” It would indeed be odd if a statesman of Putin’s accomplishments and popularity were to retire to a monastery after leaving the presidency.

At the same time, in defiance of more neutral and cautious positions emerging among some peers, other leading publications, including The Economist and The Financial Times have doubled down and yesterday published articles or editorials arguing why what Putin has presented as a move to greater democracy, checks and balances, hence “rule of law,” in actuality is merely a ruse to perpetuate his rule in another guise.

The most egregious offender in this regard has to be Tony Barber, the outgoing, long serving chief editor of the Financial Times whose last days in office passed this week. His opinion article “Putin revamp hinges on the illusion behind Russia’s social contract” not only tramples on any possibility of good intentions in the reform but trashes the entire Russian political system past, present and future, all of which he calls an ‘illusion.’ To my thinking, in his last act as editor Barber is paying penance and seeking the applause of the Russophobe majority in UK journalism, having betrayed them by his full page interview with Vladimir Putin published on 27 June 2019, the day before the opening of the G-20 gathering in Osaka wherein Putin famously declared that liberalism had ‘outlived its purpose’ and upstaged the event before it opened.


* * * * * *

But let us move on.  I wish to introduce here a couple of considerations, acid tests in my view, for whether we interpret Mr. Putin’s planned reforms in black, white or shades of grey in between. The answers will likely come in the next few days or weeks.

The first is how quickly the reforms will be promulgated and implemented.  The second is whether Duma members are drawn into the new cabinet that Prime Minister Mishustin is going to roll out.

Given that the President lost no time in assembling the Working Group of academics and scientists, sportsmen, musicians, other leading public personalities….as well as experts in constitutional law, it seems likely that he intends to proceed with the reform very quickly. An article in TASS which came out still on the 16th informs us that the plebiscite on the constitutional reforms is planned to be held before 1 May.  Other sources say with less precision that it could come “some time before the year’s end.”

In any case, the real question is when the reforms will take effect.  If they are implemented with immediate effect and Putin’s constitutionally stipulated powers are reduced while the parliament’s powers are increased accordingly, then we will be witnesses to his voluntarily rescinding power or sharing it with others for the sake of spreading the responsibility for successful governance and ensuring stable transition when he leaves office four years hence. That would put paid to any notion whatsoever of these reforms being a ruse.

The question of the composition of the Mishustin cabinet and of any future cabinet following promulgation of the reforms comes down to one point:  will it consist solely of specialists or generalists brought in to fill ministerial posts on the basis of their party affiliations or on the contrary, on the basis of their neutered status as technocrats, as has been the case in Russian governments ever since the 1993 Constitution was introduced by Boris Yeltsin, or will it include some living, breathing parliamentarians. In the former case, such a cabinet will be responsible to the parliament but will not represent a shift to full parliamentary democracy.

I am betting that Mishustin will nominate as federal ministers some leaders and/or members of the Duma from the minority parties, meaning the Communists, LDPR and Just Russia to sit alongside the strongest, most respected United Russia people from the outgoing cabinet of Dimitri Medvedev. If it were only a question of closer consultation with these parties over who is nominated from outside the Duma’s ranks, then there would be less sense to the enthusiastic backing all parties (except the Communists) gave to Mishustin’s candidacy when the vote was held in the lower house. Moreover, watching the behavior of Duma members appearing on Russian state television news in the past couple of days indicates a greater assertiveness and self-confidence than was ever the case till now.

It is very easy to consider extending invitations to the Communists or Just Russia to fill ministries in the social domain – education, culture, social welfare, even economic development.  In such ministries they might very well be more productive than the United Russia officials they would replace.  As for LDPR, although they have long called for Sergei Lavrov’s scalp, it is hard to see their taking over from the world’s most experienced diplomat who enjoys the full confidence of the President.  However, some ministerial position relating to the military industry, in particular I can imagine their replacing the rather dim-witted Dimitri Rogozin, who never exercised proper control of Russia’s corruption plagued construction site at the missile launch center Vostochny.  In all such cases, the changes would definitely enhance the authority and the determination of the Russian federal government and so play into the plans of Vladimir Putin in the closing years of his term of office.


* * * *


Although it is early to say with certainty how sincere Vladimir Putin is in his plan to further democratize Russian governance through a more balanced distribution of power between the three branches of government, there are a couple of irreconcilable problems with the notion that the announced constitutional reforms are all about the future political fortunes of one man, Vladimir Putin. These tend to turn all of the severe judgments of our mainstream media into gibberish.

Firstly, why would he propose changes in the Fundamental Law now, 4 years before he leaves office? Our mainstream media mention the maneuver by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev to hold onto guiding power in Kazakhstan by assuming a purpose created post when he resigned from the presidency in May 2019. However, that subterfuge was sprung on the public at the last minute.  Game playing of this sort four years in advance of departure would only be an invitation to all political forces in the country to outmaneuver the Leader and frustrate his ambition. They would have all the necessary time to mobilize and win.

Secondly, why if he has resolved to honor the constitutionally mandated limitation on two consecutive terms in office would Putin insist that the President retain supreme power of the executive including the right to remove his prime minister?  He would thereby be condemning himself to precarious tenure if indeed it was his intention to move back to the premiership after leaving the presidency.

These questions are not raised, let alone answered by our mainstream media for whom logic, like facts on the ground, is an irrelevancy to arriving at their predetermined conclusions.

* * * *


One of the remarkable changes in the Constitution that Vladimir Putin proposed on 15 January relates to qualifications to hold senior positions in the federal government, including deputies to the State Duma and Federation Council. They will be prohibited from holding foreign passports or permanent residency rights abroad.  Putin set still more stringent requirements for candidates to the presidency:  they must never have held foreign citizenship or residency rights, and they must have lived in Russia continuously for 25 years before becoming candidates for the nation’s highest office.

Our Putin-phobic international press and even some card-carrying members of the alternative media have seen this initiative as directed against several specific harsh critics of the President and his “regime.” In particular they mention Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oligarch now living in exile in Switzerland but keen to reenter Russian political life, and Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption crusader who once in the heady days following the faulty Duma elections of December 2011 rode the wave of mass street protests that turned ugly. Navalny might come under the ban for having spent time on a study grant in the USA.

Both gentlemen are the darlings of the Western liberal press that hubristically claims the right to decide for Russians who is the real Opposition to the “Putin regime” and who is just window dressing. No matter that they and other Liberals do not garner more than 1% in Russia’s national polls.

I see these restrictions as being directed instead against the great number of wealthy Russians who have that second or third passport to hedge their bets against some disaster befalling their homeland, such as for example a return of the Communists to power, even if only within the context of a parliamentary democracy. That goes also for their gilded youth who have been educated in Britain and elsewhere abroad and whose patriotism to the land of their birth might well be dubious.  Even putting aside that subjective factor, there remains the objective factor that Americans like so much to bring up with respect to Donald Trump:  these Russians with feet in both camps are easily subject to blackmail by a foreign government.

Moreover, there is still another dimension to the question that no one in the Russia Watch community has mentioned:   these proposed restrictions are not drawn from thin air; their relevance comes from the experience of the 2018 presidential elections when two prominent candidates fell afoul of the restrictions Putin is now proposing. These were Pavel Grudinin, the candidate of the Communist Party and of the united left, and Boris Titov, head of the Party of Growth.  In the midst of the campaign, when Grudinin’s star was rising and it looked as though he might win enough votes to force a second round in the elections, investigative reporting by Russian state television turned up the unpleasant fact that Grudinin’s wife owns a house in Latvia and has taken Latvian citizenship. Presumably, Latvia would be his chosen ‘emergency landing’ airport if he got into trouble in Russia.  That was not the only dirt turned up: it also appeared he had not declared a substantial personal holding of gold and cash in a Swiss bank, and he was charged with misrepresenting the source of wealth of the farming enterprise he heads in the Moscow suburbs, so that his electoral platform built on generalizing this success was fraudulent.  As for Titov, who otherwise is a genuine patriot as regards Russian agriculture, in which his personal fortune is heavily invested, and who is and has for some time been the Ombudsman for Russian business, there is also a dark side:  he did not participate in several of the televised debates during the month before election day, 18 March, because he was busy looking after his personal affairs in London, where his children live.

Here we have the real and concrete reasons for Putin’s proposals.  If these violations could take place under his nose, what kind of candidates for the presidency might we find on the short lists in the post-Putin future were there to be no constitutional prohibition as now will be voted upon.


* * * *

Finally, let us consider who is Mikhail Mishustin, the man whom Putin nominated Wednesday to replace Medvedev as premier.

To its credit, The New York Times online edition yesterday carried an informative portrait of the man written by The Associated Press:  “Next Russian PM A Career Bureaucrat With No Political Desire.”  The article is valuable because it details the very important administrative and technological reforms Mishustin has overseen during his ten years at the head of the Federal Tax Service which resulted in greatly increased tax compliance and revenue flows to the Treasury through implementation of Information Technologies. In fact, the Russian Tax Service is today one of the most technically advanced in the world. It has real time receipt and analysis of every VAT imposable transaction in the country, whether the sale of a cup of coffee in a hotel lobby or a multi-million dollar transaction by some major industrial company. Fraud and corruption have been virtually extirpated from its domain.

The author of the NYT-AP article correctly notes that Mishustin holds a doctorate in the IT field.  All of this gives him the expert knowledge to do what the technophile prime minister Dimitri Medvedev sought to do over the past six years, namely to bring Russian government and society into the digital age, though with very limited success due to his training as a lawyer, not a computer engineer or professional manager.

In this context it is interesting to note from an article posted on the news agency RBC’s website that at the top of the list of priorities named by Mishustin during his interpellation by the Duma prior to the vote on his candidacy is “the digitalization of the economy and conversion of the state into a “digital platform.” The National Projects that Vladimir Putin imposed on the government back in May 2018 at the start of his new term in office are in second place. Next came institutional reform, followed by removal of restrictions hindering business. Given these facts about the man , it would be naïve to speak of Mishustin as some sniveling bureaucrat.  We shall see in the months ahead whether he can finally give some traction to the long set goal of speeding up Russian productivity and gdp growth per capita, the precondition for growing prosperity in the broad population.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs,” published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Vladimir Putin Prepares His Succession

January 15, 2020 will be remembered as the start of the transition to a new political configuration in Russia that Vladimir Putin will leave behind when his term in office ends four years hence. The prospective changes were announced in the last third of Putin’s 75-minute annual Address to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s bicameral legislature. The seriousness and immediacy of the changes were confirmed by the announcement several hours later that Premier Dimitri Medvedev and the entire Russian cabinet had tendered their resignations so as to free the President’s hands to proceed with implementation of the intent of the announced constitutional changes at once, even before the Working Group on those changes was formed, not to mention the drafting of laws framing their implementation or the planned referendum on the changes to follow before their promulgation, which was also mentioned in the Address.

The result of these various developments was shock and awe in the broad community of Russia Watchers. But the commentators soon found their feet and speculation on what was pending came back with a roar.

Nearly all political commentaries that I have read over the past 24 hours have evaluated the intent of the announced changes in terms of the political fortunes of one man, Vladimir Putin. The searchlights have been pointed here and there to determine where in the new organogram Mr. Putin may sit after 2024. This is quite understandable if one considers the speculation over Putin’s alleged ambition to rule Russia for life.

Indeed, ever since his re-election to the presidency in March 2018, there has been heated speculation among Vladimir Putin’s many detractors at home and abroad over whether he would honor the constitutional prohibition on serving more than two consecutive terms in office.  Hence, his political enemies such as Mikhail Kasyanov used the occasion yesterday to crow that they had been right all along, and that we were witnessing yesterday step one to Putin’s holding on to a revised presidency.  Such assertions flew in the face of the President’s direct statement that he had no objection to the restriction on presidential service, which will remain in force. So the question naturally arose among other commentators: what will be his new perch?  Would it be as prime minister? As head of the to-be-strengthened State Council, an institution that till now has been off the organizational charts of the federal government? Or still somewhere else, as the head of a con-federal union with Belarus, for example.


In the analysis which I offer here, I will attempt to understand what is afoot more broadly, bringing in elements from the Address which bear on Putin’s intent but seem to have been ignored in the stampede to take the measure by one yardstick only.

What emerges from my approach as set out below is a tentative and still partially self-contradictory constitutional restructuring to assure continuity of a strong, centralized and deeply patriotic federal government with or without Mr. Putin. Most important of all, it is a restructuring that begins at once, so that it can consolidate in the coming four years of transition, allowing all the political actors to grow into new roles of greater responsibility and prove their mettle under the watchful eye of the sitting president.


* * * *


The proposed constitutional reform will re-calibrate the relations between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the federal government. The greatest beneficiary of these changes will be the legislature, particularly the State Duma, or lower house, which will assume powers closely approximating those in a parliamentary democracy.

Up to now, under the Constitution introduced in 1993 by Boris Yeltsin following his bloody suppression of a rebellious Duma, the Russian federal government closely resembled the tsarist state under Nicholas II when a parliament was first introduced in what had been an autocracy and the head of state retained the right to appoint the cabinet which was responsible solely to him.  Henceforth, per Putin’s revisions to the Constitution, the premier and federal ministers will be named by the Duma. The President will formally confirm them in office; he has no right to refuse the appointments, though he can later remove them for failure to perform.

There is no mention in Putin’s sketchy outline of the new order whether the cabinet will be drawn from among members of parliament or from outside, as is presently the case.  A tip-off on how open this issue remains is that the man Putin appointed later in the day to replace Medvedev as premier is precisely a technocrat, with no clear political affiliation or legislative experience, Mikhail V Mishustin, the long-serving head of the Federal Tax Service.  However, this may be merely a tactical measure to facilitate the filling of the cabinet with ministers from precisely the political milieu within the Duma. If so, it worked well, because we are told that Mishustin’s candidacy, which will be reviewed by the Duma today, met with general acceptance.

To understand what comes next, you have to take into account a vitally important statement which Putin made a few moments before he set out his proposed constitutional reforms. He told his audience that his experience meeting with the leaders of the various Duma parties at regular intervals every few weeks showed that all were deeply patriotic and working for the good of the country. Accordingly, he said that all Duma parties should participate in the formation of the cabinet.

And so, we are likely to see in the coming days that candidates for a number of federal ministries in the new, post-Medvedev cabinet will be drawn precisely from parties other than United Russia. In effect, without introducing the word “coalition” into his vocabulary, Vladimir Putin has set the stage for the creation of a grand coalition to succeed the rule of one party, United Russia, over which Dimitri Medvedev was the nominal chairman. It is highly relevant to note that, unlike Putin, whose popularity as measured by opinion polls has returned to well above 60% in recent months, the United Russia party has seen its popular support continue to erode so that its ability to hold a parliamentary majority after the next general elections is very much in doubt. The new grand coalition will ensure political continuity and stability in all eventualities.

This innovation at the level of federal ministers has its antecedents which the community of Russia Watchers, focused as it is on one man, has apparently failed to remark:  for some time now, there has been a certain power sharing with the minority parties at the level of committee chairmanships within the Duma.

This power sharing has existed at the party level and also in gender terms, with some chairmanships dealt out to women who happened also to be Communist, for example. I have in mind the chairwoman of the committee on family policy. Meanwhile, the chairmanship of the highly visible committee on foreign relations was, after the last parliamentary elections, removed from United Russia and handed to the nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR.

We may see similar gestures of power sharing in the forthcoming announcements.  At the same time, it is highly likely that key figures in the outgoing cabinet such as Sergei Lavrov at Foreign Affairs and Sergei Shoigu at Defense will be reinstated in the new cabinet given the overwhelming support they enjoy in the Duma across most if not all parties.

I mentioned above that the constitutional reforms proposed by Vladimir Putin are self-contradictory. That arises from his insistence in the Address that, given its size and diversity, the Russian Federation requires a strong, indeed preeminent presidential power.  The point of possible conflict in future is his mention that the President sets the political agenda for the cabinet.  That potentially flies in the face of a power configuration wherein the cabinet is named by the lower house. How this works while Putin is in office is no guarantee of how it will work when he vacates the presidency and a person of lesser prestige takes over.


* * **

Overall, the constitutional reforms and tilt towards a strong, functional legislature mark a sharp break with the rule by decree and struggle for control between parliament and president that Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin.  Except for the brief premiership of Yevgeni Primakov in 1998, during the whole period from 1993 until his resignation on New Year’s eve, 1999, Yeltsin had largely ruled by decree and in full defiance of the oppositional, Communist controlled Duma. Step-by-step, Putin has encouraged the parliament to take greater responsibility and to raise the professionalism of its legislative initiative and framing of laws. Evidently he now hopes to reap the benefits of that policy as his political legacy.

In closing, I add here an observation on the Address to the Federal Assembly itself.  Compared to recent years, it was shorter and was defined by near total concentration on domestic issues of immediate interest to the broad population. Aside from the usual complement of generalities on how the government will strive to improve the investment climate and raise GDP by more than 5% annually before Putin leaves office, there were numerous specific actions, some of them post-dated to January 1, 2020 that will put money in the pockets of the still largely underpaid Russian working class in government service and in private employment. These measures have all been budgeted for and are fully within the power of the President to implement.

The measures are specifically aimed at correcting Russia’s demographic challenge through enhancement to “maternal capital” disbursements. In effect, for families with two or more children, the total ad hoc allotment in cash and forgiveness of mortgage loans will amount to as much as 1 million rubles (nearly 15,000 euros), which is the equivalent of 50% of the cost of a typical apartment or house in provincial Russia. Other measures will ease the burden of child-rearing through age seven by monthly payments of 11,000 rubles (160 euros) per child to those at the bottom of the wage scale. Then there are promised goods in kind – universal provision of free hot meals to all children in elementary schools –starting in the new school year on September 1, 2020.  The importance of these measures taken together in raising the living standards of a large swathe of the Russian population cannot be overstated.

In effect, domestic concerns were the subject of 99% of the speech.  Putin devoted less than a minute to the international environment, foreign relations and military affairs, which in the past had consumed more than a third of his Addresses. He contented himself to remark that thanks to the achievements of Russia’s military renewal, meaning, of course, its new arsenal of hypersonic rockets, the country’s security has been assured for the coming decade or more.

Gilbert Doctorow ©2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs,” published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s web page to browse.]

Western media coverage of Russia as an exercise in propaganda

The notion of “fake news” has entered our vocabulary as a pejorative term for dissemination of bogus information, usually by social media, sometimes by traditional print and electronic channels which happen to hold positions contradicting the tenets of our conventional wisdom, i.e., liberal democracy. The term has been applied to Russian state owned media such as RT to justify denying such outlets normal journalistic credentials and privileges.

In this essay, I will employ the more traditional term propaganda, which I take to mean the manipulation of information which may or may not be factually true in order to achieve objectives of denigrating rivals for influence and power in the world, and in particular for denigrating Russia and the “Putin regime.”

The working tools of such propaganda are

  • tendentious determination of what constitutes news, which build on the inherent predisposition of journalism to feature the negative and omit the positive from daily reporting while they carry this predisposition to preposterous lengths
  • the abandonment of journalism’s traditional “intermediation,” meaning provision of necessary context to make sense of the facts set out in the body of a news report. In this regard, the propagandistic journalist does not deliver the essential element of paid-for journalism which should distinguish it from free “fake news”  on social media and on the internet more broadly
  • silence, meaning under-reporting or zero reporting of inconvenient news which contradicts the conventional wisdom or might prompt the reader-viewer to think for himself or herself. As a colleague and comrade in arms, professor Steve Cohen of Princeton and NYU, has said in his latest book War with Russia?:  the century old motto of The New York Times “All the news that’s fit to print” has in our day turned into “All the news that fits.”


Demonstrations of the arguments I present here could easily fill a book if not a library shelf.  However, I think for purposes of this essay, it suffices to adduce several examples of the three violations of professional journalism giving us a constant stream of propaganda about Russia and its political leadership by offering a few reports drawn from the very cream of our print and electronic media.  In particular, I have chosen as markers the Financial Times and the BBC.  The use of propaganda methods in their coverage of Russia is all the more telling and damaging, given that in a great many domains these channels otherwise represent some of the highest quality standards to be found in reporting anywhere today and consequently enjoy the respect of their subscribers and visitors, who little suspect they could be so prejudicial in their coverage of select domains like Russia.

* * * *


As 2019 drew to a close, many of our media outlets drew attention to two Russia-related anniversaries:  the just celebrated thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the retreat of Soviet armed forces from Eastern Europe that it touched off; and the soon to be celebrated twentieth year of Vladimir Putin’s hold on power in the Kremlin. Both subjects may be fairly called news worthy and so fully correspond to traditional journalistic values. What has been exceptional and unacceptable has come in the second category of violations listed above – lack of context.

Starting in October 2019, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg did several programs dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the Christmas to New Year’s period, the BBC aired one program which consisted of two parts. In the first half, Rosenberg considered the impact of the withdrawal of Russian forces from East Germany on the Russians themselves and interviewed the former chief of those forces, who explained at length how they “came home” to shocking living conditions in the provinces, how they were abandoned to their fate by their own government. The tone of the reporting was sympathetic to Russians’ hardships and it was good that their side of the story from the ground up was given the microphone. What implied criticism there was of the powers that be came from a patriotic source. However, the second half of the program was turned over to a certain Lilia Shevtsova, a very outspoken Putin-hater, formerly with the Carnegie Center Moscow, till she was finally booted out and moved to a more congenial and supportive think tank, Chatham House, in London, where her anti-Russian vitriol is encouraged and disseminated by her co-author, ex-British ambassador to Moscow Sir Andrew Wood. Among the gem quotations which Shevtsova delivered was the claim that Russia under Putin is a declining power which is capable only of disrupting the world order, a spoiler not capable of any creative or productive contribution. Of course, Shevtsova has a right to her opinions, however the BBC had an obligation to its audience to explain exactly who the lady is and, if they wanted to practice fair play, to offer an alternative interpretation of what Vladimir Putin’s Russia stands for on the global stage today.  They did not do either. The result was pure propaganda not news and analysis.

As for violations in the categories one and two above, a very good example arose following the recent publication of a study performed by the Levada Center public opinion polling organization in Moscow during October which showed that “53 per cent of 18-to-24 year-olds wanted to leave the country.” This was written about by many of our news peddlers, including FT. The decision to feature this factoid and use it to support claims that the Putin regime’ is a failure fits well with tendentiousness of our news coverage. Meanwhile, nearly all coverage of that study, including in the Financial Times, offered no contextual information whatsoever, when the context was begging to be told.

The article in FT which carried the Levada Center findings was published on 9 January as “Generation Putin: how young Russians view the only leader they’ve ever known.” The remarks on Levada followed directly on another statement begging for context: “Youth unemployment in Russia is more than three times the rate of the total population, according to 2018 data, compared with just twice the rate in 2000.”

First, as regards those 53% would-be “leavers,” one might ask: and so, why don’t they just leave?  Russia today is truly a free country:  anyone other than convicted felons who wants a passport can get it, and get it rather quickly. And thanks to the efforts of their remarkably hard-working Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most of the world welcomes Russian travelers without a visa requirement.  But for that matter, getting a Schengen visa for the EU is not so complicated either.

However, those 53% are, in fact, not going anywhere. They are just sounding off about their youthful disgruntlement with a world created and run by their parents.

At the same time, as the Financial Times editorial board knows full well, young, middle-aged and even old have been leaving the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania and other former Soviet Bloc countries in droves, for the past thirty years up to the present day.  That was the subject of an article published in the FT on the next day, 10 January 2020 under a title which speaks for itself:  “Shrinking Europe.” The states I mentioned here have seen 25 and 30% loss of their population to citizens voting with their feet and departing the shrinking economies and personal prospects which result directly from deindustrialization and economic colonization by Germany and other founding Member States of the EU since 1991. The issue appears in the news now because, as the FT explains, “Andrej Plenkovic, the Croatian prime minister, has decided to elevate population decline to the top of his agenda as Zagreb assumes the EU’s rotating presidency.”  Good for him! Now that the skeleton has finally come out of the EU closet, all the stories about Russia’s demographic crisis can be put in context – by those few who wish to do so.

Second, as regards unemployment in Russia today, I believe that similar ratios of youth unemployment to the general population unemployment can be found most everywhere in Western Europe if not in the world at large.  The fact that this ratio has worsened comparatively in Russia since 2000 may be explained by the anomalous situation in Russia prevailing throughout the 1990s in step with the economic collapse that accompanied the transition to a market economy.  Precisely the older generations, those over 40, were thrown into the street and their children or grandchildren were the first to be hired by the newly emerging industrial conglomerates, not to mention by Western multinationals settling in. What has happened since 2000 is merely a reversion to more normal distribution of employment and unemployment in the population as the Russian economy stabilizes.

Moreover, it would have been helpful had the author named the current level of youth and general unemployment in Russia. In fact, the general unemployment in Russia stands at something like 5%, so youth unemployment would be 15% by his reckoning.  I assure you that there are many EU Member States that would be delighted to have similarly low unemployment rates.  Here in Brussels the general rate has been over 20% for ten years or more, while youth unemployment has always been considerably higher.

Dear Reader!

For those who find my examples above too subtle to support my argument for egregious propagandistic treatment of Russia in our media, allow me to introduce violation number three, silence, in a way that should sweep away all objections to my thesis.

I draw your attention to an event that occurred in the past week about which you probably know nothing, or perhaps a wee bit from the odd man out reporting in the Wall Street Journal and a few other outlets. I am talking about the visit of Vladimir Putin to Damascus on Tuesday, 7 January. To their credit, the WSJ carried a short article in their 8 January edition, but went no further than to note this was the second visit by Putin since the Russians joined the fight in support of President Bashar Assad back in September 2015, turning the tide in the civil war his way. That is true, but only represents a tiny slice of what all our journalists, including the WSJ’s could have and possibly did learn from watching Russian state television on the 7th.  What our media chose not to report was passed over in silence because it shows the complexity of Russia’s policy in the Middle East that includes but goes well outside the domain of pure geopolitics. This is so not least because of the date chosen for the visit, which happens to be Orthodox Christmas.

On the evening of the 6th, that is to say on Christmas eve, by the Russian Orthodox calendar, Russian state television broadcast live coverage of the Christmas service in the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow officiated by Patriarch Kirill, with prime minister Medvedev present on behalf of the Government.  Then it cut to the service in St Petersburg, where Vladimir Putin sat in the congregation, as is his custom. The commentator mentioned in passing that the Patriarch’s father, a parish priest, just happened to be the one who baptized Vladimir Putin as a child where they all lived, in the Northern Capital.

The next coverage of Putin on state television was from Damascus on the 7th, where he obviously arrived on a night flight from Petersburg. I did not see video coverage, perhaps because the journalist pool was very limited for security reasons. But still photos and reports on state television informed us that Putin had not merely held talks with President Assad on the Russian military base outside the capital, but had strolled together with him down the streets of Damascus, had visited the main church in the (still existing) Christian quarter of the city, had presented to the Patriarch of Antioch an icon of the Virgin and had also gone on to visit the city’s oldest and largest mosque.

What you have here is precisely the second line of justification for Russian presence in Syria alongside military/geopolitical reasons: resuming Russia’s 19th century role as protector of the Orthodox population in the Holy Land and the broader Middle East.  A similar role was exercised back then by France on behalf of the Catholic populations, but that since has been totally negated by rampant secularism and multiculturalism in Western Europe.

It also has to be said that Putin’s visit to Damascus was back-to-back with other very high visibility political statements:  his visit to Istanbul on the 8th for the official opening of the TurkStream gas pipeline and for lengthy talks with President Erdogan that ended in a joint statement calling for a truce in the Libyan civil war for which Russia and Turkey support opposing sides; and his visit on the 9th to Russian naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean that included the launch of Russia’s latest hypersonic missiles, the reality of which U.S. and other Western experts have yet to acknowledge.

With this I rest my case on the unfortunate propagandistic behavior of our media which deprive the broad Western public of any chance to make sense of the most dangerous military and political stand-off of our age.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs,” published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Vladimir Putin’s Legacy

In his appearance at the Russian Cultural Center in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, the 86-year-old bard from St Petersburg Alexander Gorodnitsky objected to being introduced by the event organizer as “legendary.” Not appropriate, said he: I am still alive!

However, operating in a parallel domain, today’s political commentators do not wait for politicians and statesmen to shuffle off this mortal coil before starting the debate on their legacy. One does not even have to leave office for the starting shot to be fired.

Thus, lame duck Chancellor Angela Merkel is being subjected daily to this kind of critical analysis.  From my perspective, there is not much to argue over:  her policy of corrosive austerity in the face of one of the EU’s most severe economic and political tests following the crash of 2008 has yielded a legacy of several hundred billion euros in infrastructure underfunding in her own country alone, with Germany now possessing some of the worst highways and worst telecoms infrastructure in the EU.

In its latest print edition, Foreign Affairs magazine devoted space to evaluating the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama.  They need not have bothered:  what little Obama may have added to the evolution of policy has been utterly shredded during the two years in office of his successor, Donald Trump.

As one of the most prominent and talked about statesmen on the European  and global stage in the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been the subject of speculation over his legacy, though almost always the discussion is framed in strictly ideological terms:  over the alleged gutting of Russian democracy which he received from the hands of the country’s founder, Boris Yeltsin, and its replacement by an authoritarian mode of governance that draws upon nationalism, upon populism, in a word on the worst instincts of his electorate.

It is not my intention to get into an ideological spat with the vast majority of pundits and area specialists who stand behind the generalizations I just set out.  I believe they are dead wrong on two counts. First, the Russia of Boris Yeltsin was democratic only in the eyes of his American and European backers, who found the chaotic and desperately weak Russia of Yeltsin’s watch congenial to their plans of definitively sidelining Russia and allocating it to a minor place in European politics.  In reality, Boris Yeltsin was not only the President who used military force against his Parliament in 1993 before rewriting the Constitution to give the executive power vast authority, he was also the President re-elected to office in 1996 with the help of oligarchs’ money obtained in exchange for the sell-off of the national jewels of hydrocarbons and other raw materials production for a song and with the help of massive electoral fraud. Moreover, after his re-election he ruled largely by decree and with utter scorn for the oppositional Duma.

The second fundamental error is the prevailing blindness to the positive achievements in governance during the Putin years, which have in many dimensions seen the flowering of civil society, the growing professionalism of the legislature, the dedication of monuments to the victims of the Stalin years and other signs holding the promise of a slow but steady evolution in a democratic polity that respects human rights, has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in general among major countries, with virtually no political prisoners to speak of.

But, let us put that dispute over Putin’s possible political legacy as democrat or demagogue aside and look at the legacy that is almost beyond challenge by his detractors: the vast and multifarious investments in the nation’s infrastructures contributing to the efficiency of the economy and to the enrichment of Russia’s cultural and spiritual life, infrastructures that will outlast Vladimir Putin’s time in office by many decades.

This is all the more relevant as a discussion point today, 23 December, when the railway bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting mainland Russia with the Crimea was officially opened to traffic. This railway bridge runs parallel to a four lane highway bridge that was commissioned in May 2018.  Construction on both began in 2016 and they have been completed within or ahead of the planned timelines.  At 19 kilometers, they are the longest bridges in Russia and, arguably, in Europe. They represent a magnificent engineering feat given the physical challenges of the site. They were designed and built entirely by Russian teams.

The four lanes of the roadway have carried as many as 35,000 vehicles a day since entering service.  The new railroad bridge is expected to carry around 14 million passengers in 2020 and also will carry around 13 million tons of freight. Regular passenger service between St Petersburg and Sevastopol, and Moscow and Sevastopol was opened today and will be intensified in coming weeks as more trains are put on line.

Remarkable as today’s event was, it was just one in a series of major engineering projects of national importance completed under the direction of the Kremlin during this past year. In the past six weeks alone there were two other projects brought on line that are well worthy of mention.

On 2 December, we witnessed the commissioning of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline which runs several thousand kilometers from the gas fields of Yakutia in Siberia to Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Oblast, where it crosses over and connects with the Chinese gas grid. Implementation of this project began in 2014 following conclusion of a gas contract between Moscow and Beijing foreseeing sales of $400 billion in natural gas during a 30 year period.  When it is operating at full capacity in 2025, the pipeline will carry 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China per annum.   Construction of this pipeline was a formidable task given the adverse climatic conditions and vast unpopulated territories though which it passes.  En route, the pipeline will also serve what will be one of Russia’s largest natural gas processing complexes now under construction, breaking the raw material into high value fractions for sale domestically and for export. An extension of the pipeline will take it to the Russian Pacific coast at Vladivostok for possible processing as LNG. And in the Russian regions though which it passes, it will bring ‘gasification’ to serve residential and industrial needs.

Together with the pipelines in the West of Russia, the Nord Stream-1 and Turk Stream, which itself is about to start up in January 2020, the Power of Siberia pipeline gives the Kremlin the option of directing its exports in the future East and/or West according to most favorable commercial and political conditions. This flexibility is further enhanced by the parallel development of LNG capabilities by the private gas producer Novatek and its various partners in Europe and China based on fields in the Yamal peninsula of the Russian North.  Though Yamal is not directly controlled by the Kremlin in the way that Gazprom projects are, its development is facilitated by legislation governing export rights and conditions. Construction of a second LNG installation on Yamal is now pending. The feasibility of commercialization for deliveries heading east to Asian markets is supported by the world’s largest and most modern fleet of conventional and nuclear ice breakers, the most massive and powerful of which is presently entering sea trials. These ships are entirely designed and constructed in Russia’s state-owned naval yards.

And if we go back just a bit further to 27 November, the big news was the opening of the ultra-modern high speed toll road connecting Moscow and St Petersburg, the M-11. This road is one of the most significant Public Private Partnership ventures to be launched in the country. Partnership with the French-based international concern VINCI Concessions has ensured that best practices have been applied to safety, durability, driver comfort and the other leading parameters. To put the significance of this new road to motorists in terms that car enthusiasts of North America can appreciate, the new road makes it possible to travel a distance comparable to the Northeast Corridor of Boston – Washington, D.C. in approximately 5 and a half hours!

The M-11 runs parallel to the old national highway M-10, with numerous interchanges allowing drivers to economize as they may wish to do by switching to the free highway where and when conditions are good or to make use of the many established gas stations, restaurants and rest areas along the old road.  The provision of such amenities on the new road  is the responsibility of the four regions (oblasts) through which it passes and will understandably take some time to fill in

The opening of this super highway has been criticized by some detractors of the Putin government for covering up the woeful state of the nation’s roads in general, especially at the local level.  Indeed, until recently there was a lot of grousing among the broad population, and it was largely justified.  I recall seeing a slogan pasted on the back window of one car out in the countryside: “I pay my taxes. Where are the roads?” That rhymes nicely in Russian: “Я плачу налоги. Где дороги?”  And most Russians have been quick to recall the witty description of travel in Russia by the novelist Gogol in the first third of the 19th century:  “Russia has no roads. It has only directions.”

However, with the launch of Vladimir Putin’s “national projects” in May 2018 following his reelection, the government has finally tackled this massive problem with appropriate money and federal guidance.  While the end results of the latest efforts to give Russia local and regional roads worthy of the name are by their nature not so easy to prove and photograph as a super highway like the M11, there are signs of real traction. The problem, it seems, is not insoluble.

The Kommersant newspaper is not known for tossing bouquets to those in power. Cutting sarcasm is its more customary journalistic style.  However, in its 19 November 2019 edition, the newspaper issued a 4 page supplement “Review. The Roads of Russia”, the first page of which carries the dramatic headline “The potholes are fading away into the past” summarizing the achievements of the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads” in 2019.

I quote from the lead paragraph:
“In Russia a record amount of work is being done and financed within the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads,” which has as its objective to increase the share of the regional road network meeting standards to 50%, and highways within urban areas to 85% by the end of 2024. This year they succeeded in establishing order at a significant number of sites: residents already can see the changes with the naked eye. A number of problems were revealed which must be solved in the immediate future, among them a shortage of regional managers and experience in precise planning.”

Now I will downshift from this kind of global generalization of the journalists to anecdotal evidence from my own experience.  At about the time the Kommersant article appeared, I made an end of season visit to our dacha in the countryside 80 km south of Petersburg.  The old federal Kiev Highway taking us to within 20 km of our destination was and remains in a good state of repair and it is gradually being replaced by a modern six lane road with median strip and with illumination that now reaches out to perhaps 40 km south of the city.  However, the local roads have been of variable quality, with the stretch from the village of Siversk, designated an “urban” settlement, to our hamlet of Orlino having fallen into lamentable disrepair over the past four years, with more temporary patches than original asphalt.  Over these 12 kilometers, which local buses also must traverse, incurring heavy maintenance costs, it was customary to see drivers regularly cross over into the lane of opposing traffic to avoid the larger and more menacing potholes.

However, on this November 2019 end of season visit, we were stunned to find that the whole road had been resurfaced in what they call “capital repair.” This was proof positive that the National Project is being realized and bringing benefits to where people live. Too early to see if this will be a “legacy” but it is a good start.

On a separate note, when speaking of infrastructure investments during the Putin years, one must consider also the renovated or new airports and train stations, as well as the new sports stadiums across many cities of Russia linked to the hosting of the FIFA World Cup this past year which is said to have cost $12 billion.  Then there are the massive investments in Sochi and the nearby Krasnaya Polyana winter sports complex dating from the Winter Olympics of 2016.  Many critics and naysayers at the time predicted that the 50 billion spent on these infrastructures would be just white elephant non-recoverable outlays. However, today’s reality is that Sochi has become the international year-round resort of the Russian Federation, enjoying very high patronage and offering world class facilities to all visitors.

Finally, without detailing the phenomenon which is to be seen all across Russia, the Putin years have given to the population new or reconstructed world class facilities for theater, symphony, opera, dance and the fine arts.  In St Petersburg alone, the complex of three performance venues of the Mariinsky Theater can be held up as fair competition to New York’s Lincoln Center or London’s Barbican Centre.

All of this is what I consider the most lasting and invaluable legacy that Mr Putin will leave to his nation upon his retirement. Kudos!

Postscript, 29 December 2019:

The build-out of Russia’s cultural infrastructure did not start yesterday.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Valery Gergiev for the Lunch with the FT series dated late June 2000, just before the opening of a 5-week cycle of performances of the Mariinsky (Kirov) at Covent Garden:

… his plans for St Petersburg that are clearly his dearest ambitions. If completed – and it sounds as though they will need several hundred million pounds of investment – they will make the Kirov and its home, the Mariinsky Theatre, the centre of one of the largest cultural projects in Europe. Not only will there be a full restoration of the Mariinsky but also a series of related projects, including a new school for singers and instrumentalists, housing for the precious Kirov archives, new spaces for rehearsals and concerts, and facilities for the growing number of foreign visitors, drawn by the city’s musical life.

“…’I have seen what Lincoln Centre did to regenerate that part of the Upper West Side of New York. We can do this, too, in St Petersburg.’ The idea has already won the backing of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a St Petersburger who has no doubt noticed Gergiev’s value both as a cultural icon and as a foreign-currency earner.

“’He even telephoned me, in the middle of the war in Chechnya, you know, for a long conversation about the Kirov. Putin knows the city and what it needs.’”
That was completed, of course, A project of similar ambition is now on its way to completion for the Eifman ballet company – school and performing stage – also in Petersburg.  I could name a dozen or more other cities around Russia where opera and dance complexes have been renovated or built from scratch in the past decade.  These tend to be in towns that otherwise are now economically flourishing either from hydrocarbons or from agricultural production. I know the places because among my friends is the chief stage director of the Mariinsky who puts on shows at these new venues.
Then, as I say, there are the new or improved art museums, concert halls and drama theaters.  The artistic results are variable, which is understandable given that so much depends on the talents of the local management teams.  But there are no white elephants.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs,” published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Launch of “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs”

I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest collection of essays. The capsule description of the book carried on the pages of internet booksellers is as follows

“The essays in this book deal with major political, social and cultural events primarily in Europe and Russia during the period 2017 – 2019 in which the author was a participant or eyewitness and has personal impressions to share. Several of the essays are drawn from other genres including travel notes, public lectures and reviews of particularly insightful books on key issues of our times like immigration, Liberalism and war with Russia that have not received the broad public exposure they merit.”


However, there is much more to the story that has relevance to its potential readers  set out in the Foreword shown below, starting with the several layers of nuance in the title itself.




The title of this book has been chosen with care and a few introductory words of explanation are owed to the reader.

First, the notion of a “Belgian perspective” on international affairs may on its own seem peculiar.  In what way, one might ask, can little Belgium, with its population of around 12 million have a perspective that is unique and worthy of consideration? In the same vein, what perspective on foreign affairs in general can a lesser Member State of the European Union have when the most powerful Member State, Germany, denies that it has an independent foreign policy and defers to Brussels, specifically to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who,  formally, holds sole responsibility for these matters on behalf of the 500 million plus people from 28 nations? Indeed, in a recent interview relating to the publication of his latest book, the octogenarian former prime minister of Belgium Marc Eyskens pointed out that the rise of the EU Institutions has left national governments with a substantially reduced level of sovereignty and competence comparable to that of a major city rather than of a country.

Meanwhile and in parallel, as the seat of both the NATO headquarters near the Zaventem Airport and of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium marches in lock-step with its US-led allies. Belgium’s mainstream media, both television and print media, traditionally support whatever policy line comes from the EU Institutions and NATO.

There have been rare exceptions to this solemn loyalty to the consensus.  In particular, in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Belgium was one of the three “Old Europe” nations, alongside  France and Germany, that joined Russia in openly rejecting US policy.  For this the nation’s Prime Minister at the time, Guy Verhofstadt, paid dearly, being disqualified from appointment to head the EU Commission, for which he was a leading candidate at the time.

But the aforementioned facts constraining the political elites of Belgium are by no means imperative for Belgian society as a whole.  Indeed, as I detail in several essays in this collection,  at both ends of society, the high end in their dinner jackets and at the mass, man-in-the-street level, there is very little sympathy for the official foreign and defense policies and a lot of free-thinking going on.

All of which brings us to the question of who is the Belgian whose perspective is set out in this tome. The simple and direct answer is that I am that Belgian.

Readers of my articles posted in various platforms on the internet have seen me described in the past as an American and long-time resident of Brussels. Both statements were and are correct.  However, in August 2017 I also became a naturalized Belgian. This ‘second birth’ was more than seven years in gestation.  After its successful culmination, I found myself increasingly involved in intra-Belgian, intra-European politics. Consequently, I have written with greater frequency on issues that are specific to the Old Continent. By their nature, these articles have not been picked up and disseminated via the internet platforms based in the United States by which readers know me best. Moreover, in my new guise I have written some of these articles or speeches in French so as to better reach prospective readers around me where I live and practice politics.  These materials are also republished in this volume.

Notwithstanding the new elements, as in my preceding three collections of “nonconformist” essays published between 2013 and 2017, the major part of my writings is focused on present-day Russia and its relations with the United States and Europe.  Russia is my main field of interest and expertise coming both from book learning and from life experience as a frequent visitor to the country over many decades and also as someone who has both lived and worked there for eight years beginning in 1994. That is something very few of our commentators in the West can say before they launch into ill-informed vitriolic attacks on the “Putin regime” and Russians as a people.

Since all of the essays presented here have been published on the internet in one way or another, it is legitimate to ask what is the added value of republishing them as a book.  There are several answers to that question, ranging from the superficial but adequate to an answer that goes to the heart of how I see my social role in writing these pieces.

The superficial but adequate explanation is that everything is transient, nothing more so than the internet, where  digital platforms are here today, gone tomorrow, where even one’s own blog site lasts no longer than the latest annual fees payment.  And while e-books may be no more durable than the publishing company maintaining and distributing the digital files, physical books deposited in libraries will be accessible to the curious public and to researchers as long as the human race continues on its way, which may or may not be eons depending on your degree of pessimism inspired by this and similar works by my fellow “dissidents” on international affairs.

The deeper explanation is that influencing public opinion towards détente, towards self-preservation and away from confrontation with Russia that can easily end in catastrophe presently does not appear to be actionable. This is so for banal but understandable reasons that have to do firstly with the way the United States is governed internally and secondly how the United States rules over “the free world.”

Over the past twenty years or more, repeated polls taken by Pew and other research institutions have shown that the American public does not support foreign military adventures or a world gendarme role for their country.  However, the political establishment pays no heed whatsoever to this clear disposition of the electorate just as the views of the electorate on a great many other issues are ignored by Congress and by the Executive branch. This follows from the financial dimension of getting and staying in power.  By campaign funding and lobbying, a tiny number of exceedingly wealthy individuals and corporations effectively make policy at the federal level, and accommodation with the world is not on their agenda.

Meanwhile, whether as a result of awareness of their powerlessness or for other reasons, the broad American public is apathetic as concerns foreign policy. People just don’t want to disturb their peace of mind by contemplating the aggressive, bullying behavior of their government on the international stage.  “Our boys” are not being killed abroad in significant numbers.  The budgeted military expenses of the USA are being financed by others who buy Washington’s Treasury notes.  There is nothing to force a reckoning with what is being done in the name of America abroad.  Least of all, with respect to Russia, which has taken with surprising equanimity the sanctions and other punishments meted out to them over their alleged bad conduct in Ukraine and Syria, over their alleged meddling in American and European elections. The notion that the West might be crossing their red lines at some point, that the economic and informational war might spill over into kinetic war that escalates quickly – such thoughts could not be further from the minds of people in the States or in Western Europe, including those who take a real interest in public affairs and think they are au courant.

This is not to say that the essays published here and similar writings by my comrades-in-arms have no readers.  On the contrary, our works are republished by portals other than our own. They are referenced on social networks and attract considerable numbers of “hits,” meaning individual readers.  Some of the essays in this book have reached an audience numbering in the tens of thousands.  But so far the dry residue of this relative success remains inconsequential.  No broad-based political movement championing my/our principles of détente has emerged. There are no demonstrations on behalf of peace, while there are American and worldwide demonstrations to fight for renewable energy and for programs to combat climate change, or to fight for gender issues and equality of pay.

So, why write? why publish?

This takes us to the question of self-definition and social role.

We are living through Dark Ages today, notwithstanding all the technical achievements of our science and technology and advanced medicine.  At the moral, social and political levels, these are bleak times when “progressive” values trample upon traditional moral and ethical, not to mention religious values, when freedom of expression and other civil liberties have been gutted for the sake of public security and to serve demagogic purposes.

In this context, these writings are intended to be an eyewitness account of the prevailing moral and political decadence for the edification of those in future generations who will have their own battles to fight to safeguard cultural traditions and freedoms. In assuming this role of a chronicler, I seek to continue the work of those who passed this way half a century ago or more and who left behind their own writings of the day, which gave me spiritual encouragement and purpose when I came across them.

At the same time, I do not abandon the hope that my compatriots in America and now also in Europe will come to their senses and explore these writings and the writings of my fellow dissidents to find an antidote to the propaganda about the recent past and present being dispensed by government, by mainstream media and by all too many scholars in the field.

One straw in the wind was a July 2019 editorial in the hawkish, till now fanatically anti-Russian New York Times calling for a rapprochement with Russia before that country aligns definitively with China and recreates a global threat to American interests.  Or I refer to the publication of an article co-authored by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn in the September-October edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, another standard bearer of U.S. hegemony, stating in detail the existential risks we incur by having cut lines of communication with Russia and by entering into a new, uncontrolled arms race with that country. As the Chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1987 to 1995, he was a leading figure in arms control negotiations. In the new millennium, Nunn has been one of the generally recognized “wise men” in the American political establishment, alongside Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.

There is also an impulse for optimism coming from the latest declarations of French President Emanuel Macron, who is striving to assume leadership of the European Union’s policy agenda now that control is slipping from the hands of Germany’s Iron Lady, Angela Merkel in the waning days of her chancellorship. In his speech to French ambassadors following the conclusion of the G7 summit meeting in Biarritz on the weekend of 24-25 August, Macron stated very clearly that Europe must put an end to its policy of marginalizing and ostracizing Russia because the Old Continent needs to work cooperatively with Moscow if it is not to become a powerless bystander to the growing conflict between the United States and China.

Such signs of sobriety and concern for self-preservation suggest that all is not lost in the cause of détente.

For those who have not read my earlier works, I repeat here that my essays are often devoted to major events of the day, but are not systematic or comprehensive. I wrote only when I believed that I had a unique perspective, often from my direct participation in the event as actor or firsthand witness. I have not taken up subjects where all of my peers were piled up on the line or were basing themselves on secondary sources.  I consider my own writings to be primary sources in an extended, autobiographical genre.

However, they do not constitute pure autobiography. That is something I am writing in parallel in a book devoted to Russia in the wild 1990s, which I saw at ground level as the country General Manager working from offices in Moscow and St Petersburg  for a succession of major international producers of consumer goods and services.


* * * *

On-line bookseller Amazon has been fastest off the mark posting the book for sale in hardbound, paperback and e-book formats through its global network of websites including amazon.com, amazon.fr, amazon.de, amazon.co.uk, amazon.com.au, plus others in Latin America and Asia. Amazon competitor in the U.S. market, http://www.barnesandnoble.com, also offers all three formats.  Both websites provide a ‘look inside’ option, facilitating browsing.  For e-book purchasers in Europe, an alternative and cheaper vendor is http://www.bol.com.  For U.S. purchasers, the least expensive vendors of the e-book  at this moment are Barnes & Noble and the publisher’s own online bookstore: https://www.authorhouse.com/en/bookstore/bookdetails/805594-a-belgian-perspective-on-international-affairs

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019



The 8th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum, 14-16 November 2019

Writing about the Forum is quite a challenge. It is hard to get your arms around this gathering of 35,000 registered participants and attendees due to the large number of events running in parallel at some 90 venues in St Petersburg and its surroundings stretching out to 30 km distant. There are multiple thematic dimensions and multiple levels of participation – from expert speakers and panelists, to expert auditors of the round tables and colloquia, to media representatives, to the general public that has procured tickets to its exhibitions, concerts, dance and other performances.

To be sure, the single most important venue is the magnificent General Staff Building of the Hermitage Museum, which has a great many variable configuration spaces for such events and might best be described as a downtown convention center. Nonetheless, it would be impossible for any outside news agency to cover the simultaneous events with their own reporters even within this one building, not to mention the other sites. This is why the journalists’ pool consists largely of film crews who dip in and out of the meeting rooms and exhibitions to capture a few minutes here and there of the best-known  speakers and panelists to air on their news programs.  For the rest, we all depend on the press releases issued several times a day by the organizers of the Forum – who are performing their work to the highest standards, including cogent summaries of the remarks of the most notable speakers.

For these reasons, coverage of the event can be done quite effectively by accredited journalists living anywhere on the globe, not just by visitors to St Petersburg proper.  However, as I will explain below, there are many events for the broad public coming under the Forum umbrella which you have to savor in person. This is especially what I want to share in the brief essay below.

* * * *

The St Petersburg International Forum follows a uniquely Russian formula of mixing different objectives:  putting together leading professionals in the Russian cultural establishment with their interlocutors in the federal government, putting together the cultural establishment of the federal Center with the local establishments in the Regions, and putting together the Russian cultural establishment with its peers internationally to agree on joint projects for years to come.

As in every year, it has a theme from one of the arts – this year highlighting Theater, given that 2019  has been the Year of Theater in Russia.  As in every year, it has a more abstract conceptual motif. This year the motif is “cultural codes,” a very trendy notion underlying the ubiquitous identity politics that we see in country after country. The given notion is expressed graphically in the iconography of the Forum, in the choice of design for the backdrops in the “media passage” where interviews are taken by television camera crews.

The relevance of the overriding motif was driven home by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his speech at the Gala Concert opening the Forum:

“One of the main themes of the Forum is how to preserve the national identity of culture in the global world -which is truly a very complicated task – while being completely open to the world.  Without this balance it is impossible to speak in general about the development of humanity, about the development of art, which unites all of us without regard to religion, to our aesthetic preferences, our political passions and state borders.”

At the same time, the Forum also unashamedly serves the geopolitical objectives of the Russian Federation.  With guest experts from France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and elsewhere, the Forum is a major exercise in Soft Power.

Unsurprisingly, in this context, the featured “guest country” in 2019 is China, which has brought a very large delegation, even though the number of specifically Chinese performing arts and other entertainments is rather limited. The Chinese presence is felt more in the panelists of discussion sessions and agreement signing sessions.  This Forum was used to roll out news of the establishment of the first satellite museum of The Hermitage in China, in Shanghai, with the opening to take place in 2020.  Other Chinese featured topics were the conclusion of agreements on cooperation between the Chinese and Russian film industries for joint projects and promotion of each other’s films in their home markets. Given that China is today the world’s number two cinema market in terms of box office receipts and the number one market in terms of screens open to the public, this prospective cooperation holds promise for the Russian cinema industry which is now seeking to greatly expand its export activities.

Perhaps the most interesting Chinese offering within the Forum program for the general public is the experimental staging of a work by Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 Mo Yan that I saw on a preview performance for the press. The piece, entitled “To Kill the Emperor,” has a mixed Russian and Chinese group of performers and employs a stage solution that is very new to Russia: a central ramp on which the actors perform, with the audience seated on either side. The attractiveness of the offering was heightened by its being played within the premises of the luxurious Faberge Museum of Viktor Vekselberg. I will not pass judgment on the work’s artistic merit, only affirm that it could fit comfortably within any of the “off-off” theatrical pieces in our West European arts festivals.

Meanwhile, the performance of one Chinese classical music orchestra at the Petersburg Philharmonic Society hall and performances by Chinese soloists in other events were unexceptional in nature.

The secondary guests of the Forum, categorized as “special programs” are Turkey and the Slovenia- based Forum of Slavic Cultures.  It would appear that the most notable contribution of Turkey this year is an exhibition of Ottoman court dress as viewed by contemporary designers going on in the Ethnographic Museum.  Small change in the grand scheme of things. Presumably there was more afoot behind closed doors among the respective administrators of cultural affairs from Russia and Turkey.

As I noted at the outset, the core events of the Forum are precisely discussions before audiences varying from 30 to 200 by and for professionals – administrators and directors of cinema, museums, drama and opera theaters, their patrons and talking partners in the government departments responsible for cultural affairs, economic development and urbanism. Since St Petersburg has its share of students and professors of culture, and many others arrive from elsewhere in the Federation, we may assume that these events are being well attended by a population totaling several thousand auditors.

It is also a safe guess that the rest of the 35,000 on the registration lists are from the general public coming to the Forum to be entertained.  One of the biggest draws surely is the Jazz Across Borders program which opened in the Philharmonic Hall but spreads out from there to little jazz clubs across the city.  The lead performer, the biggest local name is saxophonist Igor Butman who has his own big band and regularly appears at festivals and large concerts across Russia. But the special feature of the Forum is the presence of other big names who are here just to have fun.  In this connection, I note the posters around town advertising the jazz performance with friends planned by concert pianist Denis Matsuev. This is “cross-over” and cultural popularization at its best.

I missed Butman, missed Matsuev, but on Thursday evening I had the pleasure to attend an event in the same spirit which the Russians call a “kapustnik” – meaning a gathering of artists to amuse themselves and their closest fans – staged by the well-known film director Nikita Mikhalkov. Held in the classical auditorium of the Grand Drama Theater on the Fontanka, the show drew a large contingent of sophisticates who had come up from Moscow and also attracted the cream of Petersburg’s drama establishment.

Thursday night was the first of two evenings of staged “fragments” from the prose of Chekhov and Bunin. It was performed by young actors who have passed through the Mikhalkov Academy of Theater and  Cinema which opened two years ago. The three-hour presentation entitled “Metamorphoses” consisted of sketches of love matches in the genre of Chekhov’s well-known story “The Lady with the Dog.” The acting was the very best of the Moscow School, which is head and shoulders above any drama theater in the Northern Capital. The scenography employed the latest technologies of video projection, as one might expect from a leading international film director like Mikhalkov.

The staged prose pieces were separated by three-minute segments of “Vesti Russkoi Imperii” – mock news reports dated 1901-1902, delivered in period dress by one of the most widely viewed female anchors from the Vesti-24 news channel.

“Russia imposes sanctions on U.S. steel,” “Russian tycoons set oil prices,” “ Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya opens in Prague to a full house,” “Russia hands out hot porridge to the hungry of Beijing,” “British prices for Russian eggs fall slightly,” “Russian craftsmen fill large orders for matryoshka dolls from Britain,” and a 1902 Coca Cola ad spelling out the virtues of its ingredients – coca leaves, water and sugar. These and other tongue-in-cheek news items are all set off by film footage from the period.  Mikhalkov obviously had a great time putting all this together and the audience broke out into rhythmic applause several times.

Finally, in reviewing the entertainments on offer under the umbrella of the Cultural Forum, I call attention to the blockbuster art exhibition that has just opened in the Manezh and is devoted to two Soviet artists, Samokhvalov from Moscow and Deineke from Leningrad, who were among the most feted practitioners of Socialist Realism during a period lasting from the 1930s to the 1950s.

All in all, there are more than 300 oil paintings, posters, drawings, sculptural etudes on display.  They come from St Petersburg’s own Russian Museum, from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, from the Kursk Art Museum named for Deineka, and from other museums and private collections across Russia. Nominally, the logic of this double-header exhibition is to mark the 120th anniversary from the birth of Deineka. Samokhvalov is there as the counterpoint, basis of comparison.  Both artists were praised by the exhibition curator for their virtuosity and for drawing on the rich traditional color palette and compositions of pre-revolutionary Russia.

To unjaundiced eyes, this attempt to celebrate Socialist Realism is a stunning failure. With few exceptions, the works on display can be charitably described as the work of illustrators, not original artists. At best we can see in them a pale reflection of the truly memorable works of their brilliant contemporary Petrov-Vodkin.

If art critics from the Financial Times and other pedigreed Western media come to this show, you can be sure they will raise the question of why totalitarian art is being showcased now by the “Putin regime.” The facile connection between Kitsch of totalitarianism and today’s Russia will surely be drawn.

However, such reasoning will be wrong-headed. The Cultural Forum is primarily a platform for genuine high quality art by living creative geniuses. Many just happen to be in the constellation of the Establishment formed during the Putin years.  Nikita Mikhalkov, Denis Matsuev, Yuri Bashmet, Valery Gergiev, Sergei Bondarchuk all are here together with many of their star-quality peers. They are in one way or another enthusiastic supporters of Putin and of the vision of the New Russia he and his close advisers are promoting.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019


Donald Trump’s Withdrawal of U.S. Forces from Syria

In the days immediately following Donald Trump’s announcement on 13 October that he had ordered the withdrawal of the contingent of approximately 1,500 U.S. special forces stationed in the Kurdish controlled territory of northeast Syria bordering on Turkey, I understood that this momentous decision deserved close analysis and comment. However, I held back, because the President’s previous attempt to extricate the United States forces from the Syrian conflict dating from December 2018 had yielded only modest results following fierce criticism from the Pentagon including the resignation of his Secretary of Defense, “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis, fierce criticism from Congress on both sides of the aisle and from the mass media.  This time I would wait till the dust settled before issuing any pronouncements, I told myself.

But the fact is that dust does not settle in Syria. There are too many parties intervening in the eight year long civil war there and these parties, with their contradictory interests, kick up storms in the desert that have repeatedly dimmed our vision and militated against drawing final conclusions on winners and losers from the conflict.  Moreover, the same may be said of the political civil war raging in the United States between the centrists of both dominant parties and the Trump Republicans. In this ‘no holds barred’ wrestling and kick-boxing match, the issue of countering Russian and Iranian influence in Syria is one of the several vital interests in play.

Indeed, as has become clear in the last few days, at the insistence of the Pentagon and of its cheerleaders in the political establishment, a group of U.S. troops estimated to number 150 has reportedly been left behind at an oil field near the Euphrates within the Kurdish region. Their mission, according to Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, is to guard the field and prevent its seizure by Islamic State militants.  That, of course, is double-talk. The obvious reason is to ensure that this asset does not return to the control of the legitimate government of Syria in Damascus, and so to enforce the economic stranglehold that the United States and its allies have from the beginning of the conflict sought to impose in order to realize regime change.

Be that as it may, in this essay we will look at the developments in Syria over the past month as they bear on our appraisal of one person, Donald Trump, who, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been at the eye of the storm.

* * * *

This latest political firestorm in the United States over Syria policy began a week earlier than the announcement of any troop withdrawal, on 7 October to be precise, shortly after the contents of a telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Erdogan became public knowledge. In effect, Trump was accused of giving a “green light” to the impending Turkish invasion of northeast Syria, which, as Erdogan had stated in the preceding several days, was meant to achieve several strategic objectives and would be pursued whatever the U.S. or other powers thought of the matter. Firstly, it was tasked with sealing the Syrian border along the roughly 100 km stretch in the northeast where a de facto autonomous Kurdish region had been established with the help of the Americans.  For the U.S., the Kurdish dominated Syrian Defense Forces were their ‘boots on the ground’ in the fight against the Islamic State. For the Turks, these same forces were viewed as collaborators with PKK Kurdish fighters on the Turkish side of the border, who have been foes of the Ankara regime since the 1980s and are labeled as terrorists.  The second objective was to create a ‘’safe zone’’ under Turkish control extending 30 km inside Syria where two million of the three million plus refugees now living in Turkey might be resettled.

When the Turks lost no time responding to Trump’s “green light” and sent their troops into Syria, Western media was waiting on both sides of the border– to document loss of life among civilians, other evidence of brutality and the flight of more than 100,000 civilians from their homes to leave the war zone.

All of this media attention was in support of political posturing on Capitol Hill in Washington, in the European Parliament and in the capitals of several major Member States.  The “authoritarian” Turkish regime was denounced. Quite extraordinarily, calls went up for an arms embargo on this NATO member and for imposition of sanctions.  The U.S. Congress led the way, and in what might be construed as damage control by the White House, President Trump on his own imposed personal sanctions on Turkish officials deemed to play key roles in the incursion.

Meanwhile, the criticism of Erdogan was not nearly so harsh and openly insulting as that directed against President Donald Trump. He was universally vilified in U.S. and European media for his “betrayal” of the Kurdish allies, for putting in question the value of U.S. security guaranties in general.  Another line of attack was on the supposed capriciousness of policy-making under Trump, his unpredictable nature which undermines national security.

One might wonder whether the media barrage directed against Trump really influences public opinion of the Chief Executive.  I firmly believe that it does, if we speak of the well-educated middle-classes on both continents. The media provide the arguments against Trump which fit very nicely with the predisposition towards Liberal, anti-Trump politics of these folks.

As a straw in the wind, I quote here from an email I received a few days after the start of the Turkish incursion from one new acquaintance, a retired European diplomat who could not contain his outrage over the behavior of the incumbent of the White House:

     I am no fan of President Trump. Here are some reasons why not.

  • He is in the business of destroying everything he can lay his hands on while not offering valid alternatives
  • He never consults anybody before taking the rashest decisions: the latest example is the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from North-East Syria last week for which he is blamed by both parties in Congress
  • I abhor his daily tweets attacking people who simply disagree with him. In the same vein, I dislike his disparaging language against any imagined or real opponent when on the stump. Examples abound.
  • Trump is no friend of alliances and allies. He prefers acting alone like a wannabe autocrat and not as the elected leader of one of the most democratic countries in the world.

Of course, all of this rant could have been clipped from The Washington Post at any time during the past few weeks and for many months earlier.

Speaking in his own defense over what he did or did not do with the Turks and with the Kurds just after the Turkish armed incursion, Trump called his actions a “brilliant strategy” that prevented the unthinkable –  armed clashes between two NATO countries on the ground in Syria. He quickly claimed that the United States would punish Turkey severely if it crossed certain red lines in the conduct of its campaign, and he sent his Vice President Pence to Turkey to enter into talks that resulted in a temporary cease-fire.  Following that success, Trump lifted the sanctions he had imposed.

This small amelioration of the situation was followed by something totally outside the control of the Americans and far more consequential: the 22 October meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin in Sochi which lasted six hours, two of which were strictly tête-à-tête, and ended in a detailed agreement on joint Russian-Turkish supervision of the withdrawal of Kurdish armed units from the delimited border area   followed by joint patrols.  This was widely seen in the American and European media as establishing Russia as the power broker in Syria and in the broader Middle East, for better or for worse replacing the United States in that role.

In effect, Trump’s peremptory order for the Americans to clear out just ahead of any Turkish advance resulted in initial abandonment of camps that were immediately overrun by the Syrian army and Russian military police.  Russian television triumphantly carried images of their boys finding caches of Coca Cola and other booty left behind by the Americans in flight.  Other images showed the departed American military convoys being pelted with tomatoes by the Arab villagers.  These videos were replayed on Western channels.

For the American political establishment, the Turks would have to pay a price for precipitating this turn of events in their back yard, which compounds their prior still unpunished offense of completing their purchase of Russian S400 missile defense systems in the face of stern warnings from Washington.  With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress has put up legislation entailing economic and military punishment. It also voted to characterize as genocide the Ottoman repressions against the Armenians more than a century ago, a measure with few practical consequences but seen as a slap in the face to the Turkish regime.

At the same time, there is little to suggest that Republican dissatisfaction with Trump’s behavior in Syria has impacted his overall level of political support in their ranks. In the vote in the House yesterday over procedures for impeachment, not a single Republican Representative defected from the party line backing Trump against the Democrats. That kind of party discipline is “awesome” in American parlance and shows up the daily articles in The Washington Post on one or another Republican’s discomfort with Trump to be nothing more than editorial wishes rather than proper reporting.

* * * *

Notwithstanding my acquaintance’s suggestion that the latest American withdrawal came out of the blue and was symptomatic of Trump’s capriciousness, it was nothing more than a resumption of the pull-out that Trump had called for in December 2018 which in turn was simply the realization of one of his campaign pledges in 2016:  to extricate the United States from the many ongoing wars initiated by his two immediate predecessors.

Given the fierce opposition Trump faced following his December 2018 announcement of plans to leave Syria, it was easy for him and his advisers to foresee the bitter reaction his new withdrawal orders would touch off.  The only possible explanations for his action are two:  stupidity or courage.  I do not for a second hesitate to choose the second explanation, which, strangely we hear very little about even from the antiwar activists who say they approve of this withdrawal.

That leaves me with the other fundamental accusations brought against Trump by my acquaintance and by his detractors in the media:  his dislike for alliances, which he is destroying in various ways and his seeming lack of an alternative vision for the world order.  Dealing with these matters, I think we can dispose very nicely of the notion that Trump is witless.

Until late in the spring of 2017 Henry Kissinger was visibly at Trump’s side on a number of occasions. He then later virtually disappeared from view. However, still in December 2017, I remarked that Henry Kissinger’s “fingerprints” seemed to be all over the national security doctrine that the Trump administration had just released. Readers of my essay on the subject accused me of placing too much emphasis on the choice of words and ignoring the actions of the administration during the preceding eleven months, which in many ways seemed to be a continuation of the Obama policies, particularly as regards Russia.

And yet, the underlying principles of Realism as set out in Kissinger’s master work Diplomacy (1994) are to be seen today in the deeds of Mr. Trump, none more so than in his rejecting any moral obligations to the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria and pursuing strictly American interests in getting out of the Syrian quagmire and letting others, who have greater national interests, pursue it to the end without us.

Though he is no idiot, Trump is also no genius. His verbal abilities are very limited.  And yet, he seems to have understood perfectly well Kissinger’s point that balance of power, as practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a perfectly valid concept for conducting foreign policy today, whatever the likes of Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and their intellectual guru Joseph Nye, author of “soft power” may have thought.

Indeed, I am willing to give Trump credit for having understood that alliances like NATO should be wound down precisely to allow nations to regroup periodically for the sake of balance of power. He may even have fathomed that the onset of WWI was facilitated by the division of the major powers into two blocs that were hostage to the military technology of their day, a kind of deus ex machina that resembles our own in 2019. All of this could be learned in Kissinger’s book of 1994 if Trump ever opened it, or more likely from the author himself during their several meetings.

Of course, it would be preferable if we did not have to speculate on what exactly Trump has in mind. But that he has something in mind, and that it serves our purposes of cutting back on U.S. armed interventions around the world, remains unquestionable.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019