Damned Lies and Statistics: The Guardian view on Putin’s mysterious popularity

Kit Knightly

Vladimir Putin is very popular in Russia. This is simply undeniable. He has won three presidential elections in the last 15 years and currently enjoys approval ratings on a par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt the day after Pearl Harbor and Bush Minor on September 12th 2001.

This, to the mainstream media (and, for some reason, The Guardian in particular) is a very inconvenient truth. Maybe the most inconvenient truth in a world full of square pegs refusing to fit through round holes.

In Corporate-media-land facts dot the ground like comically misplaced rakes, and exist only to be stumbled upon, hit you in the mouth and make you look foolish. Facts are best avoided.

Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately from our perspective – some facts just can’t be avoided. In those instances where the rakes just keep on smacking you right in your big, dumb face, the best tactic is not to avoid facts….but to explain them. To talk around them. Or even just straight make up new facts instead.

That’s how the Guardian sees it, anyway.

This wonderful, colourful, piece explains Putin’s totally crazy popularity. Not in the usual way, by claiming he’s like just like Hitler because Hitler was popular too, but in a new way: Graphs. Lots and lots of graphs.

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Under Putin poverty has gone down, crime has gone down, incomes have gone up and life expectancy has gone up. It’s just that simple – Putin has made being Russian better. That’s what the first few pretty graphs say. Then comes the great big “BUT”. First there’s this, the big lie of the Russian economic recovery:

Prosperity was underpinned by oil prices

Read this. Memorize it. In any discussion about Russia and its recovery, these words will make an appearance. They are inherently meaningless and serve only to dismiss a salient point. It is not the price of oil that regenerated Russia – it was where that money was spent. The USA has oil reserves of its own, and yet since 2000 the number of Americans living in poverty has increased every year.

If the Putin regime had not undone some of the damage done by Yeltsin-era Oligarchisation, had not reclaimed control of Russia’s sovereign resources, then no ordinary Russian would ever have felt the benefit of the increased price of oil. All the $100 per barrel would instead have gone to buy Mikhail Khordokovsky a new yacht, for his dog.

Next, they have this graph – look at it. LOOK AT IT! It goes DOWN. Isn’t that terrible!?

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This particular graph is about corruption – since 2001 Russia has apparently fallen from the 79th most corrupt country in the world to 136th last year. Interesting footnote to this though: In 2001 only 91 countries were listed, but last year over 175 countries were surveyed. Which means the real number here is Russia has moved from the 13th percentile to the 23rd.

That’s actually an improvement, or least could be.

Since the scoring system seems to be totally different it is very hard to compare. Different data sets, different criteria of measurement and an unexplained methodology make this graph a total mess. The Guardian doesn’t mention this, as you can imagine.

Of course all that could be rendered moot, given the completely farcical nature of TI’s measure of corruption.

The amazingly wishy-washy “corruption perception index”. A measure that ranks just how corrupt a country’s public sector is “perceived to be”. When and by whom this perception is being done is never explained. All we know is that somebody, somewhere, thinks some countries “seem more corrupt” than others.

Transparency International itself, an NGO founded and run by former employees of the World Bank, is ripe for a thorough investigation along the lines of BlackCatte’s recent expose on Avaaz.

The assertion that “Russia has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world”, apart from being linked to the feather-like weight of the CPI, is also backed up by the famous “report” on the corruption around the Sochi olympics written by the late Boris Nemstov. Mr Nemstov, you would think, was somewhat of an expert on corruption having served under Boris Yeltsin.

His report’s assertions that the Sochi Olympics were both “the most expensive of all time” and subject to “$30 billion worth of embezzling” are so far-fatched, teeter so close to the edge of absurdity, that even The Washington Post was forced to concede they were probably completely erroneous.

The Guardian does not mention this, they simply repeat the claims without question and continue the self-sourcing mythology.

At a basic level, it doesn’t even make any sense. You can’t decrease poverty by 66%, increase pensions, increase average wage, decrease unemployment and rebuild a failing infrastructure…all the while increasing corruption. That makes no rational sense. Corrupt states spiral downwards, they don’t improve. Look at Ukraine right now, or Yeltsin-age Russia.

That’s corruption. It hollows out a country to its very core and then, when the state is nothing but an empty shell, it collapses in on itself and falls into chaos.

Probably the most flagrantly dishonest part of the whole rancid mess is the emigration graph:

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See now, anybody would think looking at this graph that there has been some massive spike in Russians fleeing Russia. The number has apparently increased 500% in the last 5 years. Wow. That’s a lot of Russian emigres. Practically an Exodus. Maybe Garry Kasparov will part the Baltic Sea and lead all the nice Russians to the warm bosom of Free And Democratic Europe.

Most especially concerning is the fabled “Brain Drain” – all the smart young Russians packing up and smuggling themselves over the barbed wire to build a new life in The West. This, according to the Guardian, is due to the “harsh political climate” established when Putin “cracked down on NGOs”.

However, as Mark Adomanis pointed out in Forbes, this is simply not happening. It is a myth. Since the days of Yeltsin emigration has decreased exponentially. And whilst the jump from 36,774 in 2011 to 122,751 in 2012 seems like a big increase it’s easily explained on the OECD website:

The dramatic increase is partially due to a change in methodology which Rosstat implemented in 2011. Rosstat now includes migrants registered in a certain locality for nine months or more, in addition to the traditional method of counting migrants registered at their place of residence. Temporarily-registered residents are considered emigrants when their registered residence expires.

And even then, the 186,382 people who emigrated from Russia last year is only slightly more than the number of British born people who left the UK in same time span, from a population more than twice the size.

Perhaps most sneaky and misrepresentative is the one short line of text: “Net migration remains in the black.” No graph for that one. No need to mention that Russia has the second-highest rate of immigration in the world, accepting 1.1 million immigrants since 2010.

All in all, this is your pretty standard, dishonest Guardian hit-piece…just with a lot more graphs. There’s the weasel words and insinuations and very little meat. This for example:

Putin served two terms as president (2000-08) and became prime minister between 2008-12 to get around constitutional limits restricting terms of office. In 2012, he returned to the presidency amid protests.[emphasis mine]

It takes a special kind of bloody-minded dishonesty to describe a successful presidential election campaign as a return to power “amid protest”. To back up this lie with a healthy dose of narcissism, they even quote their own article as evidence. This article. To the Guardian editors the 50 million people who voted for Putin count less than the few thousand protesting on the streets of Moscow. Because democracy.

They also suggest that:

As the internet has become a space for dissent, the government has cracked down on social media companies and their users.

…and then cite as evidence another Guardian article, from 2 years ago. Its headline: “Fears of Russian internet crackdown as investigators search social network HQ”. So the evidence for a “crackdown” on social media is that there was “fear of a crackdown”. Two years ago. In the Guardian. That this is used as evidence of some kind Stalinist purge in the same paper that had been blackmailed, by GCHQ, into destroying its own computers just a month earlier is utterly hilarious.

In its mad sprawling attempts at explaining the inexplicable – that a politician who improves the lives of his people is popular – the Guardian eventually opts for the path of least resistance: Putin’s popularity is down to his control of the Russian media; he presides over an Empire of brain-washed proles, so naturally he’s popular. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true. It doesn’t matter that Putin has lifted Russia from the brink of failed state-hood. That is irrelevent.

The bottom line here is that they can’t tell the truth – they cannot tell us the real agenda. They bury this little factoid in the middle of the article:

When Putin came to power, 29% of the population were living below the poverty line. In 2013, this had dropped to 11%…

All their talking points and insinuations and twisted statistics try and talk past this number. It is a machinery designed to make us hate Putin for a false reason, when the corporate media hate him for (they perceive) a real reason. The sentence “He reduced poverty, BUT…” would be more honestly expressed as “He reduced poverty AND…”

The great lie of the situation is this: The media, the corporate infrastructure and their political allies don’t hate Putin DESPITE these numbers, they hate him BECAUSE of them.


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Categories: featured, Kit, On Guardian, Russia