After 2006 began with a dispute over natural gas between Ukraine and Russia, most Western governments (and allies in the corporate media) have begun once again to denounce Russia, calling it “authoritarian”, non-democratic, Stalin-esque and sometimes even “fascist”.

Russia is hardly a perfect country with a flawless government, but then again neither is the United States.  It is my contention that Moscow is being unfairly judged by a different standards than apply to Washington.
Just on Friday, veteran columnist Thomas Freidman in the New York Times (subscriber only) made mention of the “authoritarian” government in Russia.

Yesterday, U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos chimed in:

TOM LANTOS: We opened the door to Russia, and we suddenly see that they are moving towards an authoritarian, Kremlin-dominated society, where businessmen are sent to Siberia, governors are appointed, the Parliament is no longer an effective legislative body, but it’s a rubber stamp for Putin. And we still pretend that it’s a democracy, then we are prostituting ourselves.

The respected Jamestown Foundation mentions that Russia has just assumed the G-8 presidency:


It is perhaps fitting that the Ukraine-Russia gas conflict has rekindled debates whether Russia truly belongs in the prestigious Group of Eight (G-8) advanced liberal democratic market economies. As the Wall Street Journal Europe (January 3) editorialized, “All of this makes Russia’s assumption of the G-8 presidency this month not just ironic but almost as absurd as when Sudan chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Moscow’s inclusion in the club was never (and still isn’t) justified on economic grounds.” The conservative Daily Telegraph (January 3) was even blunter: “The West has to tell Russia that, plainly and simply, its conduct is unacceptable if it wishes to remain part of the club of civilized nations.”

In its 2006 world human rights report, the New York-based human rights group Freedom House downgraded Russia from “partly free” to the status of “unfree” ( It upgraded Ukraine from “partly free” to “free.”

The Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute is therefore no longer a conflict between two former Soviet republics but a conflict between an autocratic, non-democratic regime headed by “Putin’s Mafia Politics” (Wall Street Journal Europe, January 3) and a democratizing regime headed by Viktor Yushchenko.

Ah yes, the New York-based “human rights” group Freedom House.  It takes the gonzo journalist Mark Ames to decoct that little fantasy:

Freedom House was founded innocuously enough in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President and one of the great modern champions of human rights, and Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for president in 1940, uniting the mainstream American political spectrum to ensure that it would not be accused of being ideological. It was founded, according to its website, out of concern “with the mounting threats to peace and democracy…[and has been] a vigorous proponent of democratic values and a steadfast opponent of dictatorships of the far left and the far right.”

Who today is the far-left/right dictatorship that Freedom House steadfastly opposes?

James Woolsey, who chaired Freedom House for the past three years and only recently stepped aside, told Radio Free Europe in an interview in October that Russia was one of, if not the, main target. “We are really quite honored that President Putin, who is increasingly coming to head a government that is edging towards fascism in Russia, would be critical of what the NGOs, including Freedom House, were doing to help bring about a movement toward democracy in Ukraine,” he said.

He described Russia as “fascist” several times in the interview. “We had a period of time in the early 1990s when we were working cooperatively with the Russian security services, but now apparently they have decided to try and blame the security services in the West for their own movement toward fascism,” he said. “Mr. Putin and his movement toward fascism in Russia are on the wrong side of history. They are not going to succeed… ultimately they will lose.”

All of this warlike talk might be excusable, even laudable, if it came from a genuine human rights activist who paid for these words. But this is James Woolsey – one of the closest things America has to a Blackshirt (if we’re going to abuse this over-abused word as he does). Indeed it’s almost comical – in the way that so many insane-rightwing-plots are pure applied black comedy in the Bush Era – that a seemingly-heroic, do-good NGO like Freedom House could be led by one of the most nefarious vertebrates ever to befoul the halls of American power. You’d think that Woolsey, the notorious neocon goon and ex-CIA head, would have better things to do than to front organizations which would seem, on the surface, better suited for the likes of a Jimmy Carter. But then again, it’s even scarier to consider that his role there is no accident.

A little background: Woolsey, among other things, was one of the original founding members of the Project for the New American Century, the neocon vanguard which, in 1997, called for: a massive rearming of America to ensure that it had full spectrum dominance; aggressive use of American power, including military, to implement and secure American global domination; and the invasion, occupation, and democratization of Iraq. As most anti-Bush watchers know, the PNAC group famously bemoaned the fact that its imperial policies would meet resistance with the American public: “[T]he process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.” Like, as in, a 9/11. What luck!

Two of its key goals explain the nexus between Freedom House and Russia: “[T]o challenge regimes hostile to U.S. interests and values; Promoting the cause of political and economic freedom outside the U.S.”

Don’t be fooled.  Freedom House sometimes does support the good guys, the ones who genuinely want more democratic freedom.  But freedom is just Freedom House’s excuse for existance, not its real target.

Last year (2005) they “downgraded” Russia to “Not Free” from “Partially Free” according to their own analysis.  Yet look at who is rated as more free than Russia:

  • Kuwait
  • Jordan
  • Yemen
  • Ethiopia
  • Morocco
  • Nepal

Kuwait is a monarchy with the only “democracy” being some elections for a parliament which has no authority against the Emir.  Women can’t even vote and newspapers are censored for reporting anything critical of the royal house.  In fact, criticizing the emir is punishable by 6 months imprisonment and the offending newspaper can be shut down.  Kuwait had its first non-governmental television station (Al-Rai) begin in October 2004 and it mostly broadcasts religious programs.  The newspaper Al-Shaab was shut down for printing political news.  Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 movie remains banned in Kuwait because it criticizes neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Jordan is also a monarchy with a toothless parliament.  Journalists are arrested for printing “false and harmful information” about the state.  Just like in Kuwait, criticism of allied nations are also subject to punishment, the editor-in-chief of Al-Majd was arrested for criticizing Saudi Arabia.  When King Abdullah changed the lines of heredity, removing his half-brother for next in line to the throne, no Jordanian press dared cover the story for fear of angering the government.

Yemen has the fictitious semblance of a democracy, with an elected president, but international monitors reported widespread irregularities including voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.  Meanwhile journalists who criticize the government are arrested, often sentenced to at least 1 year of prison.  Yemen has laws on the book which criminalize anything that “causes unrest” or “undermines public morals”, used to remove anyone who doesn’t toe the line.

Ethiopia is also a fictitious democracy, where the voter fraud was so prevalent in 2004 that there were mass riots in the capital.  Thousands of members of the opposition party CUD were arrested on charges of “treason”.  Meanwhile the ruling EPRDF party continues to arrest journalists critical of its way, including the editor of Ethiop magazine who got 2 years in jail for “disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence”.  Because Ethiopia is largely rural and much of its population is illiterate, radio is very popular.  Yet the government effectively silences independent radio media by refusing to grant licenses.

Morocco, just like Kuwait and Jordan, is a monarchy with a puppet parliament with no powers.  Morocco has laws on the book which make it a crime to “insult the king” and several journalists are serving sentences for this “crime”.  Papers which discuss sensitive issues, like Islamic political movement or Morocco’s colonization of the Western Sahara are shut down and the journalists fined or arrested.  Foreign journalists who report on forbidden topics are expelled from the country.

Nepal is probably the worst of the lot, with a totalitarian monarchy and absolutely no parliament, toothless or not.  Politicians who criticize the king are arrested, journalists who criticize the king are arrested and the government sometimes shuts down the entire telephone network to prevent unflattering reports from being filed abroad.  Police also attack journalists trying to film peaceful protests.  Journalists are also fired on who try to cover the civil war.

And Freedom House, this “human rights” organization, says that Russia is less free than those countries? Of course all of them are allies of the United States in the “War on Terror”.

Another charge leveled at Russia is the resignation of Andrei Illarionov.  From January 4, 2006:

Putin is not a democrat, he is a career KGB officer. He has shown his indifference to the people he rules over and over: as he vacationed while the submarine Kursk sank with all hands aboard; in Beslan and in a Moscow theater, where heavy-handed responses to hostage situations led to carnage both times; in the government’s brutal war against Chechen separatists.

One last critic of Putin’s in the Kremlin announced his resignation Tuesday, saying he could no longer work in a government that had done away with political freedoms.

The English-language Moscow Times quoted Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s top economic advisor, as saying he was resigning after six years because the state had not pursued any “liberal or even mainstream policies” during Putin’s second term.

“When I took the job, we spoke about conducting a liberal economic policy. Now, the state has evolved in quite the opposite direction,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Andrei Illarionov resigned his position because Putin’s government wasn’t going in the direction he wanted.  That might be so, but that’s hardly authoritarian or fascist.  And Illarionov has been criticizing some of Putin’s choices for a long time.  Over a year ago (January 2005) Illarionov criticized the liquidation of Yuganksneftgaz.

If Russia is so authoritarian and “not free”, why on earth did Putin let this man remain in his government for so long?  I mean he was openly criticizing the administration.  Those who do that in Bush’s administration get fired.  Don’t believe me?

  • Mike Parker, Assistant Secretary of the Army, is forced to resign after criticizing Bush’s spending cuts on the Army Corps of Engineers (March 2002)
  • Paul O’Neill, the Secretary of the Treasury, is asked to resign because he didn’t “inspire confidence” in Wall Street.  O’Neill had publically criticized the Bush administration’s economic strategy (December 2002)
  • Larry Lindsey, a Senior Economic Advisor, fired for the same reasons as O’Neill, plus his estimate that the war in Iraq could cost 100-200 billion.  It has since cost more than 250 billion (and may reach 1 trillion dollars). (December 2002)
  • Harvey Pitt, chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission, asked to resign after hiring (ex) FBI director William Webster to an oversight panel.  The media made a fuss and it brought bad publicity to the Bush administration (November 2002)
  • General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the Army, forced to retire after he told the administration it would need many more troops for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  (June 2003)
  • General Anthony Zinny, retired Marine Corps General, forced out of role as Middle East mediator after warning of risks in the 2003 Iraq invasion, calling it the “Bay of Goats”.  (October 2003)

And so and so forth.  I dare you to find one member of the Bush administration which has criticized Bush as openly and forcibly as Illarionov criticized Putin and kept their jobs.

As for Putin “being on vacation” during the Kursk and Beslan tragedies, of course it’s an easy comparison to remember that Bush was playing the guitar and partying during Katrina, was reading a book about goats on 9/11 and has been on vacation more than any other American president in history.

From the Washington Times, January 3, 2006:

More than four years after President Bush looked into Mr. Putin’s soul and found a man he could do business with, Russia is sliding into the abyss economically, politically and geopolitically. Soviet-era revanchism is on the rise, economic liberty is in peril, restrictions on civil society are tightening, and arms sales and ill-advised gestures to rogue states and brutalizers are ongoing.

Oh yes, Russia definitely has close ties and sells arms to “rogue states”, if by that they mean “Iran” and “Belarus”.  I’m not sure what other “rogue states” the Times could mean, since any other country you could name (Uzbekistan, etc) also receives weapons and money from the United States.

Russia isn’t “sliding into the abyss” economically.  In fact, it’s doing better than ever.  Here’s a sample from the Institute for an Economy in Transition (PDF), November 2005 data:

According to the preliminary estimates made by the RF Ministry of Finance concerning the
budget’s execution in cash terms in January through October 2005, the federal budget was executed in
respect to its revenues in the amount of 4,143.54 billion roubles (24.26% of the GDP), and in respect
to its expenditures in the amount of 2,718.54 billion roubles (15.92% of the GDP). Federal budget
surplus amounted to 1,424.99 billion roubles (8.34% of the GDP). In should be noted that the volume
of federal budget revenues in 2005 is much higher than that during the corresponding period of the
year 2004.

I’m not sure how a 1.4 trillion rouble surplus is an economy in the “abyss” but there you have it.

It’s true that the president of Russia has very extensive powers, but then again so does the American president, according to Bush.  Yet there are plenty of opposition politicians in Russia.  Via the AP (December 12, 2005):

Russia’s liberal politicians and rights activists called Monday for uniting the nation’s fragmented and disorganized pro-democracy groups to counter what they described as President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian streak.

Nikita Belykh, the leader of the Union of Rights Forces (SPS), a leading liberal party, called for uniting all pro-democracy parties and groups in the next 250 days to prepare for 2007 parliamentary elections.

Belykh, speaking to a congress of liberal political forces, said that he and his party were ready to sacrifice their ambitions for the sake of forming such a broad coalition. He said “pride, old grudges, whining and snivel” had prevented Russian liberals from forming a single party.

SPS and another leading liberal party, Yabloko, both failed to win the 5 percent minimum votes to gain seats in the lower house in the December 2003 parliamentary elections which were swept by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party.

SPS and Yablonko have extremely sour grapes because they couldn’t even win 5% of the votes for parliament.  So if they want to grumble, they can grumble, but I remind you again that their grumbling is perfectly legal.

But what about freedom of the press in Russia?  I’ll go to a truly independent organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Critical reporting on the president’s record, government corruption, terrorism, and the war in Chechnya has become rare since Putin took office. Overt pressure by the Federal Security Service (FSB), bureaucratic obstruction, politicized lawsuits, and hostile corporate takeovers have enabled the Kremlin to intimidate and silence many of its critics.

The Kremlin has consolidated national broadcast media under its authority in the last four years, with independent television stations shuttered by the government or swallowed up by pro-government businesses. The state gas monopoly Gazprom carried out a hostile takeover of the national television channel NTV in April 2001. After NTV journalists moved to TV-6 to continue their independent reporting, that station was closed by court order in January 2002. When the journalists moved to yet another station, TVS, the Media Ministry yanked that channel off the air in June 2003.

The country’s remaining national television channels–state-run Rossiya and Channel One, along with NTV–have revived the old Soviet approach to news reporting, focusing heavily on Putin’s daily meetings with his Cabinet and international leaders. Major national television stations portray Putin as a decisive leader and a stabilizing force while suppressing information about the war in Chechnya, incompetence in the security services, and the government’s legal assault against the oil giant Yukos.

Political control over state television coverage has become so overt that managers have said openly that their main goal is to promote Putin and his policies. The Kremlin appointed senior government officials and political loyalists to run the national broadcasters; some of them meet on a weekly basis with Putin’s aides to discuss editorial policies. This arrangement has produced sterile daily news programs and weekly current affairs shows that please their most important audience–the president and his aides.

Well that’s certainly not good.  But how is it so different than the United States?

Thanks to the Whiskey Bar for a side-by-side comparison.

Remember Bush’s trip to Russia in February 2005?

If President Bush thought he would receive support from Russian reporters when he raised the cause of free speech, he did not know much about the Kremlin press pool.

“What is this lack of freedom all about?” one Russian reporter challenged Bush during his joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday. “Our regional and national media often criticize government institutions.”

Bush seemed surprised. “Obviously, if you’re a member of the Russian press, you feel like the press is free,” he replied. “You feel that way? That’s good.” Bush added, “That is a pretty interesting observation for those of us who don’t live in Russia to listen to.”

Indeed.  Let’s not forget Armstrong Williams, paid to promote the “No Child Left Behind” policy.  Let’s not forget the Fox News reporter who said he was ordered “to be fairer to the Bush Administration than anybody else in the media”.  Let’s not forget the gay prostitute Gannon/Guckert, who amazingly passed “security checks” to ask softball questions during White House press conferences.  Let’s not forget the Bush team’s cancellation of unscripted questions from citizens during a visit in Germany.  Let’s not forget Dick Cheney’s banning journalists he doesn’t like from attending his press conferences.  Let’s not forget the Education Department producing fake “news clips” to be broadcast on the commercial media, without identification that they were gov’t agitprop.  Let’s not forget Phil Donahue‘s show being cancelled on MSNBC, despite having the top ratings, because of heavy Bush criticism.  Etc, etc.

Another example of double standards:

Now, let’s go back to Bush’s press conference in Bratislava a couple weeks ago, back to the planted Russian journalist’s question: “Why don’t you talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired”: It doesn’t sound so crazy anymore, not to me. Not when the two senators, a congressman and the mayor’s representative attack a newspaper, and a few days later, the editor is fired.

Here is Bush’s longer response, which is almost terrifying for its candid explanation of the American method of censorship:

“People do get fired in [the] American press. They don’t get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers, or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network.”

You see? It’s a matter of formalities, not substance. Firing journalists is fine! Why, there ain’t nothing wrong with that. You just gotta do the firing by slightly less direct means, that’s the trick.

Bush is so candid about the American way of censorship that it’s almost impossible to attack it, because its very power lies in the fact that it seems to him, and to most Americans, as something self evident. Arguing with this line of reasoning is like arguing with someone over religion.

Here is that reasoning: If a journalist gets fired directly by the government, it’s censorship. But owners are business people, and business people fire employees for business reasons. So when a media owner fires a journalist, it’s a businessman exercising his right to run his business, even if the pressure to fire his employee came from the mayor and the state’s senators.

Let’s go way, way back in time, to ancient history by American brain-stem standards. Yup, that’s right, back to the spring of 2003, if you can put on your thinkin’ caps, pop some gingko bilabo, and try remembrin’ real hard-like. Cuz that’s when Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Peter Arnett, probably America’s most famous television war correspondent, was fired by NBC (as well as from National Geographic – which adds a kind of sinister humor to the story) on March 31st, 2003, roughly a week after the war started, for saying this during an interview he gave to Iraqi state television:

“The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan. Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces.”

That was it. He said: the flat truth. Nothing could be more threatening to an American than hearing the flat truth.

Almost no one, except for the usual crunchy crowd, objected when Arnett was fired- because technically, the “owner of the outlet” did the firing, not the government. Not that government officials didn’t have their say. Former New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato said of Arnett’s interview, “He gives aid and comfort to the enemy.” Fox News’ John Gibson said Arnett’s interview seemed “to be supporting the Iraqi regime.” A Republican Congresswoman from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, called Arnett’s comments “nauseating,” adding, “It’s incredible he would be kowtowing to what is clearly the enemy in this way.”

NBC News President Neal Shapiro released a statement explaining his firing: “It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war, and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview.” Shapiro would have done well in the Soviet Union. “It was wrong, petite-bourgeois, and deviationist for Comrade Arnett to speak to evil foreigners during a time of our historic struggle, offering his personal opinions:it was subjectivism and a betrayal of the Party:”

Never mind that everyone from President Bush, Vice President Cheney and war architect Paul Wolfowitz have all subsequently admitted exactly what Peter Arnett said: that the American war plan misjudged the determination of the Iraqi resistance. The point is that mainstream American journalists are not supposed to try to shape reality our exhibit behavior contrary to what those in power expect.

Just a few weeks after Arnett was fired, NBC’s sister station, MSNBC, essentially destroyed one of their most popular TV correspondents for exactly the same “offense.” Ashleigh Banfield, who had made her name as the ash-covered correspondent at Ground Zero on 9/11, spoke at a university lecture she gave on April 24th, 2003, just as the Iraq War was winding down. Banfield, who had been an embedded journalist, dared to criticize her fellow members of the media-that is, all the ones who, unlike Arnett, were cheering the war on from inside their military units, making great little careers for themselves as cheerleading Reichspropaganda tools. Here is part of what she said that got her into trouble:

“There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage-? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story: It was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news: But we really don’t know from this latest adventure from the American military what this thing looked like and why perhaps we should never do it again:”

The reaction was hysterical and universal. NBC President Neil Shapir-yup, him again, some kind of hero to Americans (at least in Russia the censors are considered unredeemable pigs, whether the censorship comes from a Surkov or a Potanin)-publicly rebuked Banfield, while her journalist peers immediately distanced themselves from her like, fleeing from potential controversy like shameless cowards, as captured in this April 29th, 2003, Reuters article: “‘I don’t think people look to Ashleigh Banfield to set the standards of journalism,’ one person said about the reaction inside the [MSNBC News] department. ‘People were sort of rolling their eyes.'”

Another example is Bill Maher, whose show was cancelled after he made controversial statements about the U.S. military, saying it was “cowardly”.

What about the statement Major national television stations portray Putin as a decisive leader and a stabilizing force while suppressing information about the war?  Sounds to me like it could apply quite equally to the network stations and Bush.

And yes of course, Russia has “legally assaulted” and broken up the oil giant Yukos.  I wonder how that compares with the coddling and protecting of Enron, especially Dick Cheney’s still unreleased Energy Task Force meetings.

Back to CPJ:

In some instances, security forces manufactured criminal cases to silence journalists reporting on the war in Chechnya. In August, a dozen FSB agents in North Ossetia raided the home and office of Yuri Bagrov, a local reporter for The Associated Press. Bagrov was convicted in December of forging a document to receive Russian citizenship and fined 15,000 rubles (US$540). His passport was also invalidated, he said, making him vulnerable to deportation as a convicted criminal. Journalists were convinced that authorities prosecuted Bagrov to stop him from reporting on politically embarrassing information, such as military casualty figures.

Reporting on terrorism became acutely sensitive, because every new attack undermined Putin’s claim that Russia was winning the war against the separatist rebels in Chechnya.

Well the Bush administration quashed pictures of incoming coffins at Dover Air Force Base, put the squeeze on Arnett and Bainbridge for criticizing the war and kept out any “dissident” journalists from being embedded in forward military positions.

Today, American journalists cannot travel outside the American-controlled “Green Zone” of Baghdad.  As a result, there are almost no independent media investigations in the western press.  Casualty figures are released by the military only for those directly killed in combat and do not include those who later died of combat-related injuries.

The American media continues to hammer Russia, saying it is sliding into dictatorship, that it isn’t democratic but run by state corporations, that Russia is a police state and that Putin is increasingly authoritarian and much closer to becoming a dictator.

Putin is a dictator?  Well Senator Feingold thinks Bush acts like he is king, especially for his recent bypassing of wiretapping laws.  A year ago, a book said that the position of American president is as powerful as a monarch.

The United States has the Patriot ACT with library records searching, authorization to spy on ANY American citizen even without probable cause (including legally viewing all your records PLUS “sneak and peek” visits to your home), plus Section 215 which prohibits the library or your bank or any other company from even letting you know you’re under surveillance.

The U.S. has warrantless NSA searches and eavesdropping of your phone.  The U.S. has American citizens held in detention for years, without charge and without access to lawyers.  The U.S. has authorized torture and/or harsh interrogation techniques of prisoners, including those never charged with a crime.  The U.S. has the military working with intelligence agencies to spy on and track American citizens.

Remind me again which is supposed to be the police state?  Which one is supposed to be “sliding into dictatorship” and “increasingly authoritarian”?

Like all Americans, I grew up in an atmosphere of the Cold War, where “we” were on the side of good, advocating democracy and human rights.  The Soviets were the “bad guys”, repressive and cruel, with their gulags and crackdowns on free speech.  Now it seems like Russia and the United States are approaching equality, one improving from its past and the latter rapidly spiraling downwards.

But let’s think positive – at least America is still doing better than North Korea!

Crossposted from Flogging the Simian


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