A brave soul speaking truth to power in Russia was just arrested for blowing the lid off corruption there. But President Obama is not lifting a finger to help democracy and liberty take root in Russian soil. Two years ago, I wrote about an academic treatise produced by former Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. It was an eye-opener for the entire world. But not, it seems, for President Obama.
In meticulously documented fashion, Nemtsov undertook to review the performance of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia, as Putin's first two terms in office were coming to an end. Across the board, Nemtsov found stunning failure combined with horrifying anti-democratic moves to conceal that failure from the general public.
The results were earth-shaking in Russia. It was the first time a member of the Kremlin's inner circle had publicly and directly challenged the legitimacy of the regime.
Putin's response to the monograph was hardly surprising: He banned it from bookstores in Russia. My blog La Russophobe, however, translated the work into English and, touting that translation, the New York Review of Books gave Nemtsov's conclusions wide play in the Western media.
Last month, Nemtsov came forward with an encore performance. Timed to be released with an international economic forum being held in Putin's home city of St. Petersburg, the new work would update the prior conclusions and review the performance of Putin's hand-picked successor Dmitri Medvedev. More important, the print run of this publication would be vastly larger, thanks to Nemtsov's enhanced status as a central figure in the opposition political movement. National print distribution was planned.
Putin's response was surprising, even by Russian standards. He actually had his storm troopers seize and confiscate more than 100,000 copies of the publication before it could be distributed in St. Petersburg. Then, just days ago, Nemtsov was arrested while signing an autograph of the new volume on the streets of Moscow. The arrest was putatively a preemptive move to stop his participation in a public rally that was just getting underway, and that's horrifying enough, but its ultimate goal may be silencing Nemtsov once and for all. The fate of writers like Anna Politkovskaya leaves no room for doubt regarding the seriousness of the Kremlin's intentions. Indeed, the Putin regime has just adopted a draconian new law allowing the KGB to arrest anyone preemptively and hold them for two weeks without charges. And it's considering reuniting the KGB apparatus broken up by Boris Yeltsin to prevent the horrifying abuses of the Soviet era. Naturally, La Russophobe could not resist translating this new material from Nemtsov as well, and we've done so.
Perusing the material, one can readily understand why Putin would want to destroy it.
Nemtsov names names, personal friends of Putin who were nobodies before he came to power and dollar billionaires afterwards. Timochenko, Kovalchuk, Rotenburg. All in the top 100 on the Forbes list of richest humans. Has the New York Times told you about their backgrounds? State-controlled Russian media certainly hasn't. But Nemtsov lays out the full details of how Putin has peopled his regime with the families of his personal cadres.
Nemstov cites devastating facts, for instance that objective international surveys show Russia dropped during the Putin years from the 82nd to the 146th country on earth in terms of corruption. Putin doubled the number of Kremlin bureaucrats during his terms in office, yet claims that only 1.5% of them take bribes each year!
And Putin himself? He is quite literally building palaces where he can dwell in Tsar-like splendor -- in a nation that does not rank in the top 125 countries of the world for life expectancy.
Putin declared that his income for 2009 amounted to 3.9 million roubles ($125,000). On this income, our prime-minister was able to give a boy shepherd in the Tula region a wristwatch worth $10,500 only magically to be seen wearing a new model of the same a few days later. Medvedev, who declared that he earned 3.3 million roubles ($106,000) in 2009, owns a flat in the super-élite Zolotye Klyuchi apartment complex, where the maintenance charge alone is at least $5000 a month. The watch Medvedev wears costs $32,200. The president's and the prime-minister's suits come from Brioni and Kiton (these go for €5000-7000 a shot) and are what Russia's billionaires prefer.
Russia's population declined by five million under Putin. Only twelve countries on the planet have a higher mortality rate. Nemtsov's rhetoric is amazingly blunt by Russian standards for discussion of the Kremlin: "The Russian government does not care for its population. 1,600,000 babies are born every year while 2,100,000 people die." Polls show two-thirds of Russians believe proper medical care is beyond their reach. Nemtsov lists a litany of social ills that Putin ignored while he was in power, turning his attention instead to projects like buzzing the American coastline with nuclear bombers.
Nemtov also has harsh terms for the country's economic performance. He asks plaintively: "What sort of economic monster has Putin actually built that it can produce both deep depression and high inflation simultaneously?" Just as Putin ignored social ills in favor of cold-war confrontation, he also ignored economic investment. Russia's growth should have been far higher in the fat years of soaring oil prices, and it should have been far more resilient when the global slowdown took root. Yet, Russia's economy was among the very worst affected.
Putin's main claim to fame has been pacifying the roiling Caucasus region, but Nemtsov shows that incidents of terrorism there are soaring once again, placing the world's athletes in serious jeopardy if they travel to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympiad (Nemtsov also documents the shocking fraud and waste that is accompanying the building of the venues there, including the world's most expensive highway). Indeed, Nemtsov argues, Putin may even be pleased by acts of terror, since he uses them to leverage further and further crackdowns on civil society.
The rich are getting richer under Putin. Nemtsov writes:
At the end of the 1990s, the income differentiation coefficient was 12-13, i.e. the average income of the richest 10% of the population was 12-13 times as great as the poorest 10%. By 2000, it was 16.9 times as great, an increase of over 20%! No greater income differentiation coefficient has ever been recorded in Russia's modern history. The contribution of small enterprise to the country's GDP is about the same at 13-15%. Compare this to the USA, where the figure is over 50% while in the euro zone it reaches over 60%.
Virtually all Russian wealth, in other words, is controlled directly or indirectly by the state and its cronies.
The two topics I most regret having been left out of Nemtsov's analysis are the pandemic of racism that has swept over Russia since Putin took power and the terrifying spate of assassinations by the KGB cohorts of the Kremlin over which Putin has presided. Russia is worshipped by neo-Nazi throngs across the globe, and it has seen opposition leaders fall like dominoes to KGB attacks.
Yet I can't fault Nemtsov for staying away from these topics. He shows superhuman bravery in touching the third rail of Russian politics, the Caucasus, the topic that cost Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova their lives. Virulent racism is genuinely popular in Slavic Russia, and those who dare to speak for democracy are easily cast as traitors, just as they were in Soviet times. Nemtsov can't do much for democracy if he gets himself shot.
Instead, I reserve my ire for Barack Obama. How is it possible that the White House is unwilling to lift a finger in support of Nemtsov's publication? He should be an honored guest at the Oval Office, and American funds ought to be supporting the distribution of his work. It shouldn't be left to volunteer bloggers like those at La Russophobe.
And how is it possible that Obama, of all people, can turn a blind eye to race violence sweeping across Russia?
Yet we see no leadership in this regard from Obama. Instead, we see him happily munching cheeseburgers with Putin's puppet Medvedev, ignoring moves to recreate a KGB state, and in so doing helping him to cover up Nemtsov's work and hasten the day when Nemtsov too will meet a dark figure in the foyer of his apartment building. (Note: if you'd like to view the Nemtsov paper in HTLM, it's here).