One year on: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17?

William Echols

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, all the evidence points towards Russian-backed proxies (if not Russian soldiers) being responsible for the tragedy which left 298 people dead. The question is, even in the presence of a smoking gun, are Russians even capable of admitting that it was Moscow which pulled the trigger?

Just weeks after tragedy struck over the village of Hrabove on July 17, 2014, a Russian friend of mine — a bright-hearted, always smiling 30-year-old who works at one of the big four accountancy firms and has visited dozens of countries — sincerely asked me if corpses from MH370 had been packed onto MH17 before it was shot down (she never named a culprit.) Coming at a time when 82 percent of Russians squarely blamed Ukrainian forces for downing the plane, after Russia had set its propaganda frequency to full-on psychosis, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But it was.

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From my experience, she is one of the most open, non-defensive people I have ever encountered in my life. By and large apolitical, internet savvy, a real seasoned traveler and art trend follower — in short, a real child of the Northern Capital — my friend didn’t strike me as the type of person to be susceptible to such crude conspiracies. But she was, a reality which forced me to revaluate a lot of things about what Russia had become following the annexation of Crimea and secret war in Ukraine. If this madness had seeped into her brain as well, I wondered, what about the choirs of men drinking themselves to death under my balcony on any given summer night, intermittently arguing and singing in the key of a mass seal clubbing? What did they think? That answer of course, was clearly apparent.

One year on, all of the theories both directly or indirectly floated by the Russian government, from the truly insane to the more plausible, have fallen apart under the weight of their own contradictions and falsified evidence.

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Meanwhile, sources close to Dutch accident investigators claim the yet-to-be published report on the incident will conclude that Russian proxies operating in East Ukraine shot down the plane. Other journalists have meticulously reconstructed all the available evidence to come to a similar conclusion. The only serious question remaining is just what role Russian troops played in the incident, and by extension, the level of culpability falling at Moscow’s feet. It is no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected calls for a UN-backed criminal tribunal to get to the bottom of the MH-17 downing, calling the proposal “untimely and counterproductive.” One can only guess in what way such a tribunal would be “counterproductive.” 

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry, by contrast, balked at Putin’s reticence, saying that “all other ad hoc criminal courts and tribunals were established prior to the completion of investigations.” It added that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

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But based on the available evidence, obfuscation, and not justice, is the only thing on Moscow’s mind.

No one expects Moscow to come clean regarding what has become the moral nadir of its brutal, clandestine war in Ukraine’s east. After all, the US government was unwilling to muster the moral fortitude to admit fault after shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, although Washington and Tehran reached a settlement at the  International Court of Justice eight years after the fact, in which the United States “recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…” Some compensation was also given to the families, though clearly not enough given the sheer loss of life.

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One key difference is that while the Pentagon did shamefully try to avoid responsibility for the incident, neither Washington nor the US media attempted to rewrite reality as we know it to cover their tracks. It did lie to avoid culpability, especially regarding whether the USS Vincennes was in international or Iranian territorial waters, whether the pilot of flight 655 was ascending or descending and at what speed, whether the plane was flying along the “established route”, and whether the Airbus was “squawking” on a civilian or military channel. The USS Vincennes did, however, issue several warnings, although failure to respond to those warnings, given all of the available evidence, did not justify the crew’s decision to shoot the passenger plane down.

All that being said, at no point did the US military or any state-run media (or private for that matter) flood the airwaves with a series of conspiracy theories. Neither Zionists, the Illuminati nor the Iranians themselves were blamed for downing the plane. A different culprit was not released on a daily basis, nor did the Pentagon itself release doctored photos to further muddy the waters.

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Moscow’s handling of MH-17, by contrast, has been one of the most shameful episodes to befall the Russian populace in these deeply troubling times. Russia’s leadership wasn’t content to to merely rip Ukraine apart to maintain their pretense of regional hegemony. They had to drive an already psychologically traumatized population crazy in the process.

In a previous piece, I wrote about how Russians are particularly susceptible to propaganda due to a series of complex historical circumstances.

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As it stands, Russia is a society of power-obsessed cynics. At first glance one would think that inveterate cynicism and a tendency to be so fawning of power would be mutually exclusive. On closer investigation, these two seemingly opposing forces do seem to gel in the Russian psyche, though with often deleterious effects.

During Soviet times, Russians used to refer to labor camps as the ‘little zones’, and the country as a whole as the ‘big zone.’ That Russians would psychologically equate their society to a prison inevitably has profound psychological implications.

Writing about a PornHub study which revealed the immense popularity of anal sex in Russia, Natalia Antonova notes the work of Pavel Svyatenkov, who argued that male-on-male rape is a tool of humiliation in Gulag culture (or any prison culture really.)

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Antonova goes on to argue that Gulag culture has not been done away with in  Russia; rather it has been sublimated. Projection of power shores up a fundamental fear of violence and domination. There is no civil society in modern-day Russia, no core ideology, no manifest belief in social welfare or a utopian belief in the future. Instead, there is the projection of power, and what that power affords you, namely protection, if not self-actualization.

Rigid hierarchies, in turn, exist through which that power is expressed, always vertically, always top to bottom. Superiority is an expression of power, and it does much to fuel Russia’s militarist, imperialist mindset. Few Russian people actually believe they can be happy in the sense that Danes are happy or Italians are happy. What they can be, however, is powerful — they can be feared. Perhaps never loved, but always respected. Such power projection is a proxy of self-worth. But it is also riddled with contradictions.

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Collectively, Russians, flexing military muscle allows for a vicarious means of empowerment in a society which, by definition, is emasculating. If masculinity has any connection to autonomy and alpha-male domination, a society which believes in no mechanisms for popular expression, but rather a coterie of powerful men who rule absolutely, is a society which infantilizes its citizens. In a remote, abstract way, nuclear warheads, tanks and guns can imbue one with a sense of power.

Actual everyday interactions with real organs of power, however, reinforce a sublimated gulag culture. You are not a citizen, a custodian of your society. You are a kowtowing subject paying rent, stealing what you can from below and kicking up tribute as many rungs on the ladder as your relative position demands.  It is this angry, volatile faultline between a power-obsessed superiority complex and daily emasculation that Russia’s elite deftly exploits, albeit on a razor’s edge.

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All in all, manipulating people in Russia today relies on a two-pronged approach which references both that triumphalist cynicism and the shaky contradictions of power-obsessed prisoners.

First, employ a fantastical conspiracy to displace the fact-based (WESTERN) narrative, and then appeal to Russians’ wounded pride by placing the antagonist in Western dress.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote about the latter phenomenon as “ressentiment”.

Ressentiment can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.

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Kierkegaard noted that ressentiment can lead to bloody, violent rebellion with the express purpose of leveling all men, and all things. Looking at Russian history, there is no need to belabor this point. Most absolutists forms of government in history inspired rebellion. Other societies, however, moved beyond absolutist forms of government. It just so happens that those are the very societies which Russians are now being taught to view as the enemy of its “traditions.”

For a brief window in the 90s, Russia played with the concept of equals, but only in a superficial and ultimately abstract way. The ensuing chaos which resulted became intimately associated with ‘democracy’. Stability became the new mantra. Power was concentrated to maintain this stability. This stability, however, was largely predicated on external factors like the price of oil and natural gas and the need for other country’s in the ex-Soviet sphere to respect their relationship of inferiority to Moscow. Maintaining this relationship (and high oil prices) is paramount to Russia’s elite.

But with an economic downswing and many on Russia’s periphery clamoring for a right to determine their own affairs, the rotten core of the Russian system of governance was about to be laid bare. To maintain their grip on power, all social ills had to be transferred onto outside forces, ‘fifth columnists’, ‘enemies of the people’ and so on. It’s ironic, seeing that external factors in fact played a large role in the largesse of Putin’s first decade in power.

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As a society, Russians are already enamored with the concept of diffusion of responsibility. Two rules became paramount in Soviet and post-Soviet life: always blame someone else — never take responsibility. Generations of Russian leaders have both created and played on this reality to their own ends. They are also victims of it. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Sadly, for a traumatized population, institutionalizing a  distorted frame of reference has left many Russians perilously at odds with any knowable reality. And as living conditions deteriorate, the need to be great via the proxy of fantasy, often militaristic and atavistic fantasy, further takes hold.  If there is one thing Russia’s deeply frayed populace cannot bear at this point of time, it is being on the wrong side of history. The war in Ukraine in general and MH-17 in particular have certainly put them there.

Even if Russians were getting all of the facts about what befell 298 innocent people last July, it wouldn’t be enough to change their minds. The problems isn’t just the toxic blend of both cherry-picked and out-and-out fabricated information being fed to them. The problem is the filter which stands between them and an all too harsh reality that far too few are capable of facing.

Except for the clinically psychotic, even the most militant and ultimately violent defenders of Russian aggression deeply want to be viewed as just. Whatever acts of violence are being committed against government troops in Eastern Ukraine, they are being done to beat back American imperialists, Ukrainian fascists, Zionists, the Illuminati, or all of the above.

Russian Ultra-nationalist Demonstration

To no longer be a bulwark against American Imperialism, but rather sandbags thrown around the moat of a corrupt mafia manor, to no longer be freedom fighters against the “fascist junta” in Ukraine, but rather the invader of a sovereign nation and the murderer of women and children in the sky, — such a realization in large enough numbers might just see Moscow go up in flames.

For now, people are content to burn up inside. Just how long that controlled blaze will be left to merely consume families rather than the nation itself is anyone’s guess. But until then, no matter what truth the world reveals about MH17, expect a majority of Russians to live not in the world as it is, but in the world as they wish it to be, no matter how dark and strange that place appears to be to those on the outside looking in.

Russia has nothing to fear but Russia itself

William Echols

Half a dozen military planes down in a month, nearly two dozen men crushed under a collapsing barracks, surging mortality rate and the deaths of troops forced to fight in Ukraine being written off as “training accidents” — for a country obsessed with external enemies, the only real threat posed to modern day Russia is Russia itself.

On Tuesday, a Tu-95 strategic bomber went down in Russia’s Far East, killing two of the crew on board. It was the second such crash of a TU-95, known not so affectionately by NATO as “Bear”, in just over a month’s time. Between June 4th and July 6th, 4 other Russian fighter jets: a Sukhoi Su-24M, a Sukhoi Su-34 and two MiG-29s also went down.

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Russia, of course, is no stranger to such tragedies, whether they are spurred by ratcheted up patrols to keep NATO on its toes, or poor safety coupled with human error.

In one of the more saddeningly bizarre “only in Russia” incidents, Christophe de Margerie, former-CEO of the French oil company Total, was killed when a drunk snow plow driver crashed his vehicle into the 63-year-old executive’s plane at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport in October. De Margerie, ironically, was a dyed in the wool defender of Russia’s interests, though Russia, it turns out, was not a very good defender of his personal safety. It wasn’t the airports first hiccup in recent times. In December 2012, a Russian airliner (without passengers) fell apart after sliding off the runway at Vnukovo, killing four of the eight crew members on board.

And a month after De Margerie’s untimely death, passengers were forced to get out of a plane to push it down the tarmac in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region after its brake pads reportedly froze. Luckily, in this instance where aviation safety regulations were thrown to the arctic winds, no one was hurt.

But in perhaps the worst aircraft tragedy to befall the region in a generation (before Russian-backed militants shot down MH-17 over Eastern Ukraine that is), 43 people were killed when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team struck a tower mast and crashed on the riverbank of the Tunoshna River on September 7, 2011.

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On September 11 of that year, then-President Dmitry Medvedev ordered for all airlines which did not adequately “ensure passengers’ safety” be grounded. It remains a wonder, then, how Russia’s Air Force, heavily reliant on decades-old Soviet stock, which “were designed to be flown 10 years and then thrown away,” continues to operate at its current clip.

But its not just planes. For Russians in general and Russian soldiers in particular, the past week has not been a good one for those dying at the hands of the motherland.

On Sunday, 23 soldiers were killed and at least 22 more wounded after their barracks collapsed on the base of the 242nd Airborne Training Center in Omsk. Officials, of course, claim the building had undergone extensive renovations in 2013. But like so many things in Russia, all that means is that funds were allocated for renovations. Whether they went into the barracks themselves or building some general a new country house is anyone’s guess.

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But it doesn’t stop there. One day prior to the barracks incident,  two people were killed and 4 others injured when a residential building collapsed in the city of Perm.

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For insiders, the chances of poorly constructed buildings tumbling to the ground does not come as a shock. Several years back, while complaining about a couple of massive blue-on-blue residential towers seemingly plucked from a Tim Burton-nightmare (only to be followed up by green and yellow-tiled analogs) in my then neighborhood of Shchukinskaya, an engineer whom I’ll call Dima told me the buildings were structurally unsound and no one would sign off on them before people moved in. And yet people did move in.

The alleged deathtraps.

The alleged deathtraps.

The way he put it, if the things do one day fall apart (and by things, I mean the buildings), when officials go looking for someone to hang, no name will be found on the dotted line. Perhaps the developers will have long-since moved to the French Riviera. No one will ultimately be held responsible, and life in Russia will go on.

A few months after that conversation, an accident at the Sayano–Shushenskaya power station accident in the Russian Republic of Khakassia left 75 people dead. The cause of the accident was a vibrating turbine which had long been known to the plant’s workers. In fact, the very turbine reportedly underwent extensive repairs just months before the accident. It was quickly apparent that the repairs had not worked. The turbine went on spinning anyways. And so it goes.

At the time of writing, Muscovites are marking the worst accident to ever befall the capital’s subway system, when a train derailed one year to the day, killing 24 and injuring 180. I remember having to take a taxi to work, and how the ensuing nervousness when the line started working again was akin to a low grade version to what people felt after the 2010 metro bombing. The illusion of security dissipates. Stress compounds. Activities which once put people in the blanched box of Coopers colors sees them donning tangerine-tinted glasses and nervously throwing glances every which way. It takes a toll.

No, whether falling from the skies or falling asleep in one’s own bed (or on the metro during a morning commute for that matter), just existing in Russia is a risky proposition.

Despite the Kremlin’s obsession with external threats and fifth columns, the only real threat to Russians is Russia itself. NATO is unlikely to shoot down a Russian fighter, but the chances of a Russian fighter crashing during a saber rattling exercise remain staggeringly high. The chances of a B-2 stealth bomber ever dropping MK 82s on a Russian military base, likewise, is negligible. The chances of soldiers dying under a deluge of concrete and steel due to shoddy construction is far more likely.

Add to all that a clandestine war in which Russia refuses to recognize those dying for the motherland (Putin has in fact made the figures for casualties stemming from “training exercises” classified)  and the reality that deaths by external causes reportedly reached a rate five times higher than that in Western Europe by 2006 (though such deaths have recently and thankfully been in decline), it’s no surprise that Russia’s mortality rate is soaring. Really soaring.

In May, the Russian State Statistics Service (Rosstat) released data showing that the number of deaths in the country had grown by 5.2 percent in the first quarter of 2015.

Those deaths, however, were largely not the result of murders or accidents, but rather those suffering from respiratory diseases, diseases of the digestive system, infectious diseases, and blood circulation disorders. The question is why.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, greets Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, injured in a car accident.

Writing for Forbes, Mark Adomanis noted that “some researchers have linked the rapid increase of circulatory-system-related deaths in the 1990′s to ‘psycho-social stress’ brought on by the atmosphere of pervasive economic insecurity which accompanied the end of the planned economy.”

That assessment would gel with research earlier conducted by Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist teaching at Emory University, who essentially argued Russians were dying from a lack of hope. Or, in the words of Masha Gessen, who reviewed Parsons’ thesis, “Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.”

So, is psycho-social stress stemming from the Ukraine crisis and subsequent economic downturn reversing otherwise positive (albeit limited) demographic gains made during Putin’s tenure? Ironically, less than a month before Russian troops occupied Crimea, Russia had recorded its first natural population growth since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in an atmosphere when a clandestine war is tearing families apart, stress is literally killing people, while gloomy economic prospects and overall international isolation will likely deter Russians from having more children. Such an atmosphere could also reverse trends which had served to depress death from external causes.

Meanwhile, with healthcare spending down 9 percent over the past two years, cuts which one government agency claimed had led to thousands of extra deaths in Russian hospitals last year, Russia’s mortality rate is likely to continue its upward tick.

In 2012, when Putin announced he was “running” for a 3rd presidential term, he said that the country’s demographic crisis risked creating “a geopolitical ‘void’ whose fate would be decided by other powers.” Putin was right to realize the real threats facing the country were on the home front.

Sadly, he has decided to listen to the advice of men like Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, who is convinced that Ukraine’s westward drift was a conspiracy to undermine Russia.

But if people like Patrushev and Putin really want to find a cabal of people conspiring to bring Russia to its knees, they need look no further than the mirror. It is their corrupt coterie which has siphoned away the country’s future though offshore bank accounts and left critical infrastructure in tatters; it is their mode of rule, and not their intrinsic Russianness, that pushed Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit.

With most economic sectors facing 10 percent cuts, defense spending is expected to increase 33 percent over 2014, even though some analysts believe the invasion of Ukraine has sounded the death kneel for the country’s military reforms as well.

And as planes, trains and buildings continue to hit the ground and go off the rails, no amount of ballistic missiles or Armata tanks will be able to save Russia from itself.

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You’ve gotta serve someone: Grexits, Ukrainian dreams and the systems that bind us

William Echols

Greece’s potential exit from the eurozone, if not the whole European project together, cuts a sharp contrast with Ukraine’s distant hope of one day joining the EU. The issue at hand, however, is not an ideal vision of what the world should be, but which system offers the best potential outcome for relatively small fish forced to tread deep global waters.

Reactions to Greece’s economic woes has almost become a modern day Rorschach test in eliciting a person’s social-political views. For those who put a strong focus on systems, fault for Greece’s imploding economy are almost always laid squarely at the feet of its creditors. One need only read any leading European daily with a leftist bent to see op-ed after op-ed declaring the Troika (the holy spirit of the EU represented by the father in the form of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank) as an elitist force whose primary aim is the very destruction of democracy itself. For those more enamored with notions of personal responsibility and an arguably inflated sense of personal agency, feckless governance and a wholly entitled population (retirement at 45 with the highest EU-wide pension payments to boot!) has seen Greece’s GDP shrink year-on-year while unemployment soared. Greek’s were living high on the hog on borrowed money, only to lash out at the ‘adults in the room’ when their allowance was cut off. Or so the argument goes.

 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

For those who recognize the global system as a deeply complicated and chaotic place, both positions contain kernels of truth, are not mutually exclusive, but are also more married to self-serving ideological interpretations of world events than reality on the ground.

This article, however, is less concerned with knowing how much of which finger to point at who in the unfolding Greek drama. The question, rather, is why would young Ukrainians risk their lives and the inevitable ire of Russia to subject themselves to a European system which many Greek’s are clambering to get out of?

One only need look to the eastern members of the financial union to see a very definite pattern emerge.

Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky noted that “eastern members of the euro are among the strongest opponents of bending to Greek demands.” This is partly explained by jealously — partly by the eastern member’s greater relative exposure to Greek debt. But as Bershidsky argues, these countries were also forced to “bend over backwards” to satisfy  the increasingly stringent requirements for membership placed on them by the monetary union. Ukrainians for their part, as he notes, have little sympathy for Greeks struggling to get by on pensions of 600 euro a month, with the average Ukrainian getting by on a fraction of that sum.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s reaction followed a similar line.

“This year, our responsible and effective policies have consolidated the entire world’s help and solidarity around Ukraine,”Bershidsky cites Poroshenko as saying.

”Greece has found itself in isolation due to its less than responsible behavior when it tried to blackmail the European Commission,” he continued.

Petro Poroshenko

Petro Poroshenko

Poroshenko’s logic is simple, we are loved by the world because we do what Brussels asks of us. The Greeks, in contrast, are biting the hand which, for many Eastern Europeans, keeps the Russian wolves at bay.

Another reason for generally higher levels of enthusiasm among central and eastern Europeans regarding the EU as a whole is that they have something their western counterparts (apart from Eastern Germans) do not have — a parallel experience within another political and economic system.

If one were to take a Wallersteinian approach to the global order, peripheral nations have always been subsumed to the world system’s core nations.

America, the hyperpuissance or hyper power, has gone farther towards merging the nation state with the actions of world-system than perhaps any other political entity in human history. As George W. Bush’s senior political advisor Karl Rove allegedly said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

World Systems Theory has its problems, and the degree to which America creates its own “reality” (as well as the nature of that reality) are hotly contested. But in a world with regional centers of power which, at best, offer different conditions on which to interact with the global capitalist system, the argument is less about ideology, and more about which nexus (and by extension set of rules) offers the best outcomes.

Unfortunately, some countries find themselves on fault lines between these vying interests. Ukraine is by and large the greatest literal and metaphorical example of a state with the misfortune of being rent apart on every level due to its geography.

Prior to Moscow’s clandestine invasion, opinion was fairly evenly divided between whether Ukraine should seek integration in the European Union or the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (which now includes Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) — 42 vs 37 percent respectively. As the Washington Post noted, citing a poll conducted by Gallup, that discrepancy had grown to 59 vs 17 percent over the span of a year.

The US itself has decried the Customs Union as an attempt to resovietize the former Communist bloc states. This attitude is fundamentally incorrect. In Soviet times, Moscow (and Russia by extension) functioned more like Washington in regards to its worse performing states: a disproportionate amount of money was sent to the periphery to keep them afloat. For all its faults, the Soviet Union was engaged in a massive social welfare project, whose benefits are still exalted by many, especially in Soviet states far from Europe’s borders.

Rather than looking like a new Soviet Union, the Customs Union, in fact, is more interested in creating a rough analogue to the EU, with Russia taking the place of Germany. Despite the rhetoric, Russia’s political leadership is deeply committed to the global capitalist system and have little interest in the social responsibilities or political ideology implicit in the Soviet system. Russia might throw its support to disparate political forces in the West (one minute it’s the far-left Syriza, the next, neo-fascist Golden Dawn), but in truth, all Russia’s leadership wants if for the West to shut up about corruption and human rights and keep doing business.

Golden Dawn. Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

Golden Dawn. Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

As I wrote previously, Moscow has often been described as a ‘voronka’ or funnel, in the sense that it is the focal point for all of Russian wealth accumulation. Its not just a matter of the disproportionate amount of foreign direct invest that flows into the capital. Russia, after all, is a land bound empire with an extractive form of economy. The resources come out of the east, the money flows west.

Putin’s Customs Union is arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. In a country where the rule of law is virtually non-existent, that funnel is set to expand illicit gains as well. Last year, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused former president Viktor Yanukovich of  leading a mafia-style syndicate that siphoned $100 billion out of the country, $32 billion of which was sent to Russia by truck).

For many Ukrainians, even those who have no Soviet-style illusions about the West, there are very tangible benefits from moving away from a Russian-centric system where corruption is not just a by-product of economic activity, but in many cases the intended outcome. Moreover, Putin doesn’t care if you gun down at least 14 protesters (though to be fair, neither did Tony Blair,) nor will he be pushing for unified CO2 emission targets, bloc-wide anticorruption measures or cross-border healthcare rules. But for those seeking a far deeper social contract, Europe seems like the logical choice.

Scene from December 2011 Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan

Scene from December 2011 Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan

The question is, does Europe really offer a way out for Ukraine? Some have argued that one need look no further than Poland for an answer. Much has been written about the shock therapy given to Poland in the 90s, and there is much room for debate whether such harsh austerity measures were at all necessary. But one thing remains true. During the turbulent 90s, Poland was mired in debt and had a GDP per capita on par with Ukraine’s (roughly $1,600) Today, Ukraine’s GDP per capita is believed to be anywhere between a third and a fourth of its Western neighbor.

To be fair, Ukraine is an absolute basket case, with its annual GDP per capita growth rate coming in dead last when measured against 20 other Eastern Bloc states between 1992-2013. Even without Russian pressure or artificial wars being fomented in its east, Ukraine’s internal problems are legion.

Source; Quartz, citing IMF data

Source; Quartz, citing IMF data

It remains to be seen if, given another orbit, Ukraine would go the path of Poland, or stay the course of Greece, who, much like Odysseus, is still deciding whether to dance with Scylla or Charybdis. But seeing what Russia’s put on offer to those who would choose Brussels over Moscow (cheap gas in one hand and a knife to carve out new borders in the other), it is little wonder that the likes of Kiev and Tbilisi have set their sights for Brussels, even while many in the West, from the shore of the Mediterranean to the English channel, are looking to jump ship.

But whatever way you jump, in the end, you gotta serve someone. And given that the choice in the 21st century has thus far been reduced to variations on a capitalist theme, for idealists, as well as those on the far left and far right, there is no choice at all. But for those who have seen firsthand the actual differences that exist between the social contracts on offer between various players in the global financial system, what appears to be a game of inches to the ideologically committed amounts to oceans of difference when viewed at scale.

Bigamy, teenage brides and abortion rights: How ‘tradition’ threatens Russia’s women 

William Echols

Tacit consent for a 17-year-old’s “forced” marriage in Chechnya, apparent acceptance of bigamy and a recent attempt to roll back abortion rights show that those tasked with protecting women and children in the Russian Federation have put a skewed sense of tradition over their citizens’ actual health and welfare.

On May 19, Russia’s lower house of parliament submitted a bill which seeks to criminalize abortions that are conducted outside of state-run hospitals. The legislation would entail administrative fines of up to $4,000 dollars for private individuals, $16,100 for officials, and $50,450, (or a suspension of operations for 90 days) for companies that run afoul of the proposed law.

One stipulation, which reads that “the artificial termination of pregnancy funded by mandatory health insurance will be possible only in the presence of certain medical or social reasons,” has sparked fears the bill is the first step in banning abortions all together.

The legislation would be a massive step back for women’s reproductive rights in Russia, which was the first country in the world to permit abortions for any and all reasons in 1920.

According to the bill’s authors, the widespread availability (and broad public acceptance of the practice), is a threat to national security at a time of national crisis. The Russian Legal Information Society (RAPSI), citing state-run media agency Ria Novosti, claims experts estimate that 5-8 million abortions are conducted in Russia each year. That would be a massive figure in a nation of 143.5 million, though it appears to have been pulled out of thin air.

According to the government’s own statistics, the abortion rate in 2011 was 989,375, less than half the 2.11 million performed in 2001.

As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped over the course of the past 20 years, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination. That figure lies in stark contrast to the first decade after the Soviet collapse, when the number of live births amounted to half the number of terminated pregnancies.

Source: Forbes

Source: Forbes

The abortion rate, while still high by global standards, has clearly gone down without a need for government proscription. The Kremlin, however, seems reticent to use more effective and less intrusive measures to tackle the problem.

In December, for example, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov said sex education would never become part of the curriculum in Russian schools, claiming such classes would contravene the country’s morals and traditions.

Previously, he had rather quizzically argued that Russian literature was the best kind of sex education for teenagers, adding that schools “must raise children in chastity and with an understanding of family values.”

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This, mind you, coming from someone who once warned that signing onto international agreements intended to protect children from sexual exploitation was the “first step towards the destruction of a child.” In his parallel reality, children being made aware of abuse so that they can hopefully identify it and possibly even prevent it is somehow more destructive than being molested in silence — just as actually being aware of sexual health issues that aren’t covered in Anna Karenina will endanger, and not protect teens.

It should come as no surprise that Russia’s grand defender of children has recently become infamous for justifying a middle-aged Chechen official’s decision to “forcibly” take on a second, teenaged-bride, arguing that in some parts of the Russian Federation, women “are already shriveled at age 27.” 

In a further coup of irony, he washed his hands of responsibility in the matter, saying “the Constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal matters.”

So Astakhov, who once claimed there was an active pedophile lobby, does not want to get in the way of a 46-year-old man taking on a teenage-bride. But how does the fate of a teenage girl in Chechnya connect with the latest bill seeking to roll back abortion rights?

kheda1

As it turns out, one of the conservative lawmaker behind the legislation not only concur’s in Astakhov’s belief that a powerful pedophile lobby is active in Russia, but she has also thrown her tacit support behind polygamy via the case of the Chechen teen.

“To criminalize [bigamy] is ridiculous, because the cause is not connected with an absence of criminal law, but rather the fact that there are not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children,”  Ria Novosti cited Yelena Mizulina as saying.

Mizulina, who heads up the Duma’s Women and Children Committee, seems to believe that controlling abortion and allowing polygamy are the best ways to combat Russia’s demographics crisis.

Yelena Mizulina

Yelena Mizulina

But strangely, for a lawmaker so concerned with upping Russia’s birth rates, Mizulina has also strongly come out against surrogate motherhood, which she said “threatens not only Russia but all of mankind with extinction.”

How exactly surrogacy threatens the human race is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain: the women and children of Russia are clearly in good hands with such advocates.

Of course, in Russia, where all public politics is virtual, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; the stage-managed illusion from the actual policy. But as the proposed abortion bill shows, Russia’s current leadership is definitely holding true to the old adage that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, especially when “traditional values” can intersect with cost cutting measures.

And at a time when most economic sectors are facing 10 percent cuts and where healthcare spending is down 9 percent over the past two years, Mizulina argues that money saved from the state healthcare budget [for “unnecessary” abortions] will be used to support pregnant women in a tough life situation.”

How much money Russia’s austerity-ridden healthcare system could actually save by denying abortions seems nominal, and fails to take into account the cost shifting burden to the states already overburdened and drastically underperforming orphanage system.

But like so many things in Russia, to view this proposed legislation in light of its presumed function is to fall victim to the bait and switch. It was Mizulina, after all, who introduced the 2012 Russia internet blacklist law, ostensibly to protect children from harmful internet content, but which was later used as a tool to counter “extremism,” which is often a code word for the political opposition.

In Russia, the leadership has become deft at creating one boogyman as a smokescreen to attack the last remnants of civil society, or as in the case of limiting abortions, seizing on a legitimate social problem in order to create another mechanism of control. Victims of this approach, women or otherwise, are merely collateral damage.

So instead of empowering people through sexual education and teaching them about properly using contraception (which is to say, treating citizens like citizens and not subjects), the Russian state would rather put the fate of women’s bodies firmly in its hands, forcing further unnecessary government intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to a 46-year-old police commander taking on a teenaged-bride, well, sometimes a laissez faire attitude is needed to keep the peace.

In the end, the Kremlin is sidestepping real solutions to public health problems affecting society in general and women in particular for the same reason it has abandoned a 17-year-old girl to the wolves in Chechnya: the only thing that really matters to Russia’s leadership is doing whatever it takes to keep the power vertical in place.

That strategy might allow for self-satisfying diatribes on state TV rallying against the “decedent West’, but will do little to alleviate a country racked by crisis, demographic or otherwise.

And sometimes, the pageantry of sovereign democracy entails warping tradition to defend “traditional values”, just as the governments defenders of women and children ultimately have to leave those they are ostensibly advocating for by the wayside.