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In Conversation: Yevgenia Albats at ANU A prominent Russian dissident journalist offers in a talk at ANU surprisingly balanced views on political life in Russia today

Tony Kevin

I had the pleasure of hearing Yevgenia Markovna Arbats, Russian independent journalist, political scientist, radio host, and chief editor of the Moscow-based New Times magazine, in public conversation at the Australian National University, Canberra on 5 June. The event was advertised by ANU as a discussion of…

…the interplay between Russia’s domestic politics and its disposition to shape events beyond its borders. Forthright journalist and radio host on Russia’s only remaining liberal radio station ‘Moscow Echo’, Yevgenia Albats has risked controversy and criticism throughout her 20+ year media career. Also holding a PhD in political science from Harvard University, she is one of the most qualified people to talk about her homeland to ever arrive on Australia’s shores.”

The audience was predominantly from Australia’s intelligence and related think-tank communities, emeritus and present, with a sprinkling of academics and diplomats.

Feeling rather like Daniel in the lions’ den, I was pleasantly surprised by Yevgenia Markovna’s talk and responses. I had expected the usual anti-Putin sneers and condescension towards Russia, favoured by Russian emigre and dissident journalists appearing in Western media: people who feed and are fed by Western Russophobia.

Arbats proved to be a more interesting and complex presenter than this. Her main themes as I understood them are worth noting.

She gave a basically optimistic picture of Russia today, long on anecdote, and avoiding many of the usual sweeping negatives. She rejected Western stereotypes of a Russia that oscillates endlessly between phases of authoritarianism and relaxation, and that Russia is now moving back into a more repressive phase.

She noted that all European countries have had cruel and undemocratic histories, to which Russia is no exception. She was optimistic about Russia’s present democratic prospects and rejected the stereotype that the Russian people are unsuited to democracy. She emphasised that Russia is not the Soviet Union and there is no prospect of going back to that repressive model. She noted the growth of volunteerism and local democracy in the regions.

She liked living in Russia and had no wish to emigrate, despite problems with censorship of her journalism. She proudly noted the recent public raising of $370,000 in Russia to help ‘New Times’ pay a crippling fine for failing to register as an agent of foreign influence.

She said Russian political parties were insignificant, it was effectively a one-party state. She blamed selfish and greedy leadership elites for Russia’s present problems as she saw them. Though Putin’s popularity had now declined from its peak after the Crimea annexation, and people felt poorer now, she did not expect any successful popular revolution from below.

She expected Putin to ensure his own safety in a succession plan, as Gorbachev and Yeltsin had done. Political change was likely to come, if it came at all, from power struggles within the governing elite. She hoped that change would be peaceful when it came.

She rejected the stereotype of inevitable conflict between Russia and China. She noted that it is hard for Russian elites to accept that Russia’s economic strength has been overtaken by China’s. She did not see evidence that China has any designs on Russian territory or resources. She noted the difficulties facing Chinese investment in Russia: high-interest rates in both countries, and lack of local labour forces in Russia. She thought that Russia’s natural resources assets would become less significant as the world moves away from reliance on oil and gas.

She did not say much about renascent Russian military power, beyond that it was starving the civilian economy of much-needed high technology, the same mistake the Soviets had made.

Other things Yevgenia Markovna did not speak on, but on which one would have liked to hear her views: problems in Russian-US relations and in maintenance of international peace under the aggressive and erratic Trump leadership; new more fluid possibilities for international cooperation as global structures based on US hegemonic power wane in importance and new structures like BRI and EAEC move into the vacuum; the impact on Russian domestic politics of American information warfare and efforts to foster regime change, through disruptive political actors like Browder and Navalny, especially since the events in Ukraine post-2013.

I was graciously offered the first audience question. I commended Yevgenia Markovna on her surprisingly positive and optimistic picture, rather different from the usual negativity and disdain from Western and Western-sponsored information warriors.

I referenced my background as a former diplomat in Brezhhnev’s Russia and my three recent private visits there, my love of and respect for Russia, including for its leadership elites. To her reply that perhaps I needed to spend more time in Russia to get to know it better, I said that I would love to be able to afford a flat in Yalta or Sochi.

I noted that her own opportunities as a writer, broadcaster and editor in Russia as she had described them today suggest to me that Russia’s present political situation and trends might be better than she assessed them. I did not have time to say that, on my experience, it is hard for Australian writers to find ways to express in print or online contrarian views on the need for greater Western respect for and dialogue with Russia.

As Russia moves towards greater democracy, Australia is sadly moving in the opposite direction: as seen in today’s disturbing news of police raids on Australian journalists’ homes and the ABC. I suggested that our two countries’ present levels of freedom of public expression might perhaps not be very different.

Tony Kevin is a former Australian senior diplomat, independent writer and author of Return to Moscow, University of Western Australia Publishing, March 2017.
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Tony Kevin
Tony Kevin

A very interesting discussion, thank you. A lot of good ideas generated here. I agree SPIEF was a great success.

I copped a bit of backflap from one of the Australian Putinophobes. He was angry that I had accentuated the positives in Albats’ presentation. But I reported what I heard.

John A
John A

“She did not say much about renascent Russian military power, beyond that it was starving the civilian economy of much-needed high technology, the same mistake the Soviets had made.”
Well, as I understand it, the US spends around 750 bn dollars on the MIC and Russia about 60-70bn or less than 1/10th. And this does not include all the NATO puppet spending that together with the US, dwarfs the Russian bill.
So sure, it may well be that the Russian civilian sector is being starved, but surely to a far lesser extent than in the US, where the infrastructure is totally crumbling, homelessness has reached ridiculous levels, healthcare is totally unaffordable for many and the list goes on. The US is far more likely to collapse, USSR style, than Russia. If and when the dollar hegamony is smashed, the sooner the better for the rest of the world.

BigB
BigB

No, it’s not John …no it’s not.

If the dollar hegemony were ‘smashed’ it would collapse the global economy and precipitate a deep recession, and many, many people would die. It is not desirable: and neither is the likely successor economy.

World trade is mediated in the reserve currency – which is actually the ‘eurodollar’, not the dollar …but let’s not complicate it. We actually had a collapse of the reserve currency just a decade ago: so we know from living memory what will happen.

According to the BIS: it started ‘offshore’ with a dollar shortfall of $2-6.5tn dollars (forget collateralised debt obligations and securitised mortgages – even the Federal Committee concluded this was not a big enough shortfall to cause globalised partial collapse): which caused the trans-national interbank market to collapse – which were deemed ‘Too Big To Fail’ as they were starting to drag whole countries under. Oil and commodity prices collapsed – hitting poor countries hard …though you only ever hear of Euro-Atlantic hardship and redundancies. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers – bless.

All eyes were on the Fed: but it was China that was best placed to bail out the global economy. Which it did by buying up US debt (in the form of Treasury bonds) and overdeveloping its internal built environment – rallying global commodity markets. The G7 CBs – including the PBOC – acted in collu$ion (Nomi Prins) to inject massive stimulus – ‘Quantitative Easing’ – which was supposed to get the global economy going again.

It didn’t: and is still ongoing. The CBs are lowering rates at the moment preparing for another round of QE. QE is and was asset inflationary – free money to the rich. It is over-financialisation that cannibalises the productive economy. It makes the global economy weaker and more crisis prone – leading to capitalisms ongoing permanent crisis. Productive assets damaged by recession can be bought up for cents on the dollar – monopolising global trade in the hands of the billionaires – creating never before seen levels of impoverishment, gross inequality, and grotesque wealth polarisation. Leading to a recoveryless cosmetic debt, GDP, and FAANG stock ‘recovery’. Surplus fictitious capital (‘free’ QE money) was not invested in internal productive markets – but in external Emerging Market Economies (EMEs). This dollarised FDI gives the dollar enormous leverage over global trade. What is really important to note – because it fools everyone – is that anyone from the global elite can use dollars (eurodollars) by borrowing or creating capital ‘offshore’. It is not Americanised imperialism just because it is mediated in dollars – it is globalised imperialism.

Something VVP was rightly drawing attention to at SPIEF – whilst standing right next to the world’s greatest QE ‘easer’ and asset bubble creator …President Xi. China had to go massively into debt to bail out the global economy …something your average Bloomberg or Forbes hack never mentions when they denigrate China’s ‘debt bomb’. It was created to save their butts, too. They also finished their internal infrastructure and public works programme circa 2015 – since when commodity and goods markets have slowed down.

If you want to know what a dollar collapse looks like: you shouldn’t have too long to wait. It has already started – commodity markets collapsing, debt delinquencies, reserve rate relaxations, $11tn in negative yield bonds (that’s right, corporate investors are subsidising mainly the euro and yen), trillion’s in NPLs and ‘off-book’ shadow banking ($37tn in China alone), and a dollar shortage – point to an incipient liquidity crisis offshore. A surefire indicator – which economists like Jack Rasmus (read him!) point to – is ‘yield curve inversion’. When the 3month and ten year US treasury bonds values invert – which they did in May – recession is on the horizon. Don’t ask me why: but this will happen when the rates revert – which QE will do.

We won’t see it coming. Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ warned us to expect and prepare for the unexpected. But no one is prepared: and the global economy is even more systemically fragile and much more overfinacialised and overdebted than 2007. Despite ‘torpedoes’ in the Straits of Hormuz and ‘rare earth’ trade wars – commodity prices are bottoming out (due to entropy – but that is another complication I’ll skip).

China is no longer in a position to bail out the world. In fact, it has systemically weakened its economy – and thus the global economy – in doing so. The dollar is indeed unstable (strong ‘onshore’; weak and vulnerable ‘offshore’ – particularly in the EMEs (the ‘canary in the coalmine’ indicator)). Dollar strengthening (Trump’s tax cuts last year – an unnoficial QE4 wealth giveaway and Powell’s short lived QT (‘tightening’ – reversing QE)) sucked FDI out of the emerging markets, ending their growth (except China’s), and plunged their currencies into crisis. So they stopped QT.

Options in restarting the global economy beyond the coming recession are very limited. Expect CBs to cut rates below zero (ZIRPs); go cashless; ‘haircut’ private accounts; and ease like mad – to make the rich richer and the poor poorer …buying up their commodities for ‘free’. And if they lose confidence in the dollar – expect the G7 (soon to be G8 again) CBs (central banks) to inflict crisis capitalist ‘shock therapy’ and activate the SDR – the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights – and a new bankers centralised reserve currency bank …under the singlepoint control of the worlds most powerful elites and TNCs. Scared? Perhaps you should be?

The one country that has tangible assets – mainly hydrocarbons – and the undeveloped interior geography to enable what David Harvey calls a ‘spatio-temporal’ fix …accompanied by a coupled technological fix …is Russia. Which is the only country in the partial process of secession from the dollar. Switching its reserves from dollars to yuan – not by choice, but by sanctioned necessity. Along with the previously announced grand strategy of Eurasian Integration – of the EAEU and China’s BRI – to form the ‘supercontinent’ …and its high-speed fintech digitised information superhighways connecting the global markets (and the much quieter stealth Russian ‘pivot to Africa’ [Korybko]) …puts Russia and China as world leaders in neoliberal globalisation.

Which is all fine: if we approach this geo-strategy from a quasi-globalist and proto-capitalist “lesser-of-two-evils” and false binary of ‘West bad/East good’ neoliberal globalisation. Which is where any discussion that might be had as too the ecosophical and ecological implications for humanity gets lost. I seem to have isolated myself by concluding that this entails the telos of the end of humanism. Apparently, its a good thing. With which, I vehemently disagree with.

Sorry for the length, but complexity can only be condensed so much. It’s not black and white either. VVPs addressing the nuclear issue is a genuine and long overdue cry for sanity …which will be ignored. And the ending of the weaponisation of aid is a huge positive. But overall: centralised control of economic global governance – perhaps with the SDR as global reserve …is something surely no one wants that? A new revisionist ‘rules based global order’; centralised global governance under a more efficient neoliberalised WTO and corporatised UN; Agenda 2030 sustainable growth; facilitated by a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ technocracy …rising in the East; perhaps in the near future under the centralised command and control of an IMF’s SDR reserve currency vassalship to replace the dollar?

So, careful what you wish for.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig

All eyes were on the Fed: but it was China that was best placed to bail out the global economy. Which it did by buying up US debt (in the form of Treasury bonds) …

Actually, China began significantly reducing their holdings of US T-bills after the 2008 crash, realizing they were over-exposed to the dollar. That was one of the principal purposes of the Fed’s QE: to vacuum up the T-bills the Chinese were quietly unloading on the aftermarket so that US bond yields wouldn’t get too high. The Chinese have since dramatically expanded the use of their own currency for handling current accounts–and they have also expanded the use of other currencies for the same reason: ruble, rial, etc. In other words, the Chinese have worked to decrease their dependence on the US dollar as both a trade medium and and investment medium. BRICS is another example of that.

BigB
BigB

That’s simply rubbish: China significantly expanded it’s holdings …with no drop off until 2016. This was the first graph I could find:

https://images.app.goo.gl/p1gGVMtzYydEai5C7

The share of the RMB/CNY has actually fallen since it was included in the SDR basket. As a share of the global reserve: it’s less than 2%.

https://matasii.com/us-dollar-status-as-the-global-reserve-currency/

De-dollarisation is largely an internet meme that doesn’t stand up to empirical analysis. BRICS was conceived of as an alternative globalisation model by Goldman Sachs – as I’ve shown before. All their ‘alternative’ financial institutions are dollarised for loans – again, as I’ve shown before. Check out James Corbett; Michel Chussodovsky; or Patrick Bond for corroboration (I’m out of links).

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig

I stand corrected.

mark
mark

The actual military budget for the current year is $1,134 billion. This includes £400 billion that is hidden by sleight of hand, like the cost of producing and maintaining nuclear weapons, shunted off on to the Department of Energy budget.

Jen
Jen

I wonder if Russia appears to be a one-party state because its politics might be tainted and distorted by continuous low-level US meddling and biased news media reporting. The way in which certain figures like Alexei Navalny and (in the past) Boris Nemtsov have been built up into fictional heroes by the news media in the West and in Russia (through publications like “The Moscow Times”) might have had the effect over the years of pushing the public into being more supportive of Vladimir Putin than he otherwise would be if the country were left alone, and of tolerating restrictions on the press and other political freedoms that they would not otherwise condone.

One could say that politics in Australia these days also resembles a one-party state as on many issues there is hardly any difference between the two major parties’ stances and policies.

Ivan
Ivan

Albats prefers to ignore the communists.

Greg Schofield
Greg Schofield

“The audience was predominantly from Australia’s intelligence and related think-tank communities, emeritus and present, with a sprinkling of academics and diplomats.” Diplomats, and have been since 1979 members of the ONI, it is mandatory. So her audience appears to be spooks and some strange.

I have no-doubt she made some very good points, considering that spooks have more or less taken over so many university positions in this country that their echoing stupidities has lowered intellectual life enormously. It is not hard to improve on what is taught in politics courses and Asian studies as the lectures of some are little more than declassified security papers.

Yevgenia Markovna is a liberal, which is not meant as praise, as has long lost the sheen it once enjoyed and tends to be somewhat realpolitik in its morality. The analysis of Russia or any country using democracy as a concept is worst sort of formalism imaginable and the main reason liberals in Russia do so appalling despite their large , thanks to foreign investment, media ownership (incredibly disproportional to their actual “popularity’.

My criticism is that Australian humanities are trapped in a time warp, its concepts, methods and quality of theory are worse than lacklustre, debate about anything that is conceptually difficult, considered controversial (almost anything these days that is not an echo of what every knows and most are aware does not work), or historical.

Tony, I appreciate what you are saying, in the past I would have praised the even handed and valiant attempt towards correcting gross distortions and sometimes concocted lies; but alas not any more, things have moved on at a fast pace.

The US is in a state of collapse, and the security networks in this country are tying us to the deckchairs of the Titanic, for the first time since 1972 our choice is stark, die culturally, economically and politically with the ‘whore of Babylon’ or tell the truth which is become part of the new emergent multi-polar world.

However, this debate will not happen because of the intelligence community and its close integration with that foreign power. Russia has positioned itself, abutting Western Europe as the diplomacy with integrity and obedience to international law, we have done the opposite when the dust settles we need to settle accounts with those that have done so much to harm this country for… I don’t know what they seek, maybe it is just a pat on their head.

axisofoil
axisofoil

I have to wonder if this woman knows the truth about the Magnitsky Act.

BigB
BigB

There was a tectonic shift in the established world order last weekend in St Petersburg. The twin themes of SPIEF 2019 were ‘anti-globalisation versus globalisation’ and ‘sustainable development’. The anti-globalisation force was seen to be Trump’s quasi-protectionist and sanctions regime – which is over-extending its jurisdiction globally. The solution – interpolating from VVP’s globalist duckspeak – is a revisionist “rules based global order” under the enhanced efficiency of the WTO – led by Russia and China’s ‘technocracy rising’ digitised trade platform. Russia and China now see themselves as the leading forces in economic globalisation – utilising the potential of the UN.

“The technological development agenda must unite countries and people, not divide them.”

President Xi put it more directly: “China wants globalisation” or “China supports economic globalisation” …depending on translation. The sentiment is unmistakable.

The supporting theme was SDG and Agenda 2030 ‘sustainable growth’ – two antithetical words that do not belong in the same sentence …let alone a coupled oxymoron.

“The UN agenda for sustainable development to 2030, in the spirit of harmonious coexistence between people and nature, which takes into account the needs of the current and future generations, provides a new vision for global development.”

The theme was re-iterated by the UN’s Gutteres: as high officials from the IMF and WB applauded them on.

Does anyone actually want to address the hidden agenda’s here? Or are you going to carry on the pretense of an imaginary Russia/China counter-hegemony and alternative development model? Counter hegemony, maybe – but the development model is neoliberal globalisation.

A development vehicle that is incompatible with many of the stated demographic human development goals. Globalisation favours TNC monopolisation: not entrepreneurial start-ups. Elsewhere, VVP spoke of “globalisation with respect to sovereignty” – but the two are contradictory and antithetical. You either have a sovereign fiscal and monetary space within a Westphalian nation state framework …OR a globalised de-territorialised space for trans-national capital. Globalisation is a supercession over sovereignty.

My main critique is that globalisation is the antithesis of human scale development that would actually support “harmonious coexistence of people and nature”. Or that globalisation in an entropic world is the architecture of ever diminishing returns and systemic fragility – entailing permanent crisis and potential collapse.

Perhaps someone wants to put the counter-argument that technochratic, digitised, neoliberal Agenda 2030 globalisation is a positive economic and ecological model for development? For the mutual benefit of humanity and nature. If so, I’d really like to read that thesis.

Greg Schofield
Greg Schofield

100% in agreement and your post heightens the gap between the shopworn , tattered and generally greasy ‘liberalism’ that is so wedded to neo-liberalism it turns itself in knots and falls back on absolutely empty rhetoric of democracy when it is basically demanding coups to favour western corporations(not really going to win over the populace on thieir actual program, in Russia or anywhere else).

Thanks, the St Petersburg meeting was thrilling, should be what eceryone is talking about — it will be a long wait before their is lecture about it and what brought it about at any Australian university.

Greg Schofield
Greg Schofield

Mistake, wrote 100% meant 50%, I do not agree that globalism means the same thing, rather the reverse, global trade need not impoverish.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig

Or are you going to carry on the pretense of an imaginary Russia/China counter-hegemony and alternative development model? Counter hegemony, maybe – but the development model is neoliberal globalisation.

I agree that Russian and China are pursuing a globalization of sorts, and I also think Russia is internally pursuing a policy of economic liberalism. But do you really believe that China is a liberal economic power? Are you aware, for example, that the overwhelming majority of China’s GDP is actually state-owned? That would include the Commanding Heights, such as finance, resource extraction, healthcare, education, transportation and public works. Or do you simply believe that all globalization is inherently neoliberal, regardless of the nature of the economies it unites?

BigB
BigB

It’s well worth noting how China’s ‘economic miracle’ started: it was partially colonised along the littoral ‘priority development areas’ by surplus Western dollarised capital from the very late 70s on. China’s miraculous development – from Deng’s reforms to date – was neoliberal and (euro)dollarised from the start. And so it remains: with the two currencies closely tied. David Harvey dedicates a whole chapter entitled “Neoliberalism with Chinese Characterisitics” to detail this in his “Brief History of Neoliberalism”.

The SOEs started to become partially privatised from 1983: though Chinese privatisation is still under centralised command economy. Long story short, after waves of liberalisation: as Steve Keen is fond of pointing out – China now has the “biggest private equity bubble in the history of capitalism” …or words to that effect.

Liberalisation also involved meeting Lagarde’s criteria for including the yuan in the SDR basket of currencies. Which is part of a long term strategy to replace the dollar reserve – with the SDR, not the yuan.

Even the Saker has had to admit: “Putin is a neoliberal” …as is Russia institutionally and constitutionally …thanks to Yeltsin and the ‘Harvard Boys’. So, Russia/China’s globalisation is neoliberal globalisation.

I’m afraid I do not share any of the ideals of benefits from this. The benefits are short lived: the debts and wealth polarisation effects are longer lasting. The whole idea is predicated on limitless expansion: which is prohibited by entropy. Unrepayable debts – public or private – become unservicable in a Bear entropic market. The effects of which are prevalent globally.

The entire elite neoliberal globalisation model is the very antithesis of what humanity requires. And Agenda 2030 sustainable development goals? Every world leader – except Trump – suddenly seems to be an eco-socialist. Does that not make you just a tiny bit suspicious? It scares the hell out of me.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig

Putin is definitely an economic liberal; you’ll get no argument from me on that point. I just don’t regard China as being all that liberal economically (which is a good thing). As far as the US’ trade relationship with China is concerned, it seems most the neoliberalism is on the US end of the equation. The Chinese have merely taken advantage of America’s greed/stupidity to advance their own country and people. As long as the benefits of their export success have been reasonably spread around, I don’t have much of a problem with their development model. In fact, at this rate, they could end up helping several more developing countries, as their own labor is starting to get pricier with respect to the Third World average.

mark
mark

Most of the Russian Opposition is of the Gessen Zionist Regime Change variety, fed by Neocon money, worshipping at the altar of all things American, and calling for endless economic warfare against their homeland, if not actual warfare.

Frank Speaker
Frank Speaker

The Atlantacists are certainly a big problem in Russia. I’d go even further than that:
As an alternative theory #11 concerning the alleged Russian involvement in the Skripal affair, we feel it’s all hogwash, however, it’s not completely infeasible that the Russian Atlanticist bastards actually were behind it set up the two guys and working with their other Atlantacist comrades, their aim to comletely embarass Putin, and a lot worse.