Opinion

John Lloyd

In Ukraine, a choice of civilizations

John Lloyd
Oct 16, 2013 17:57 UTC

KIEV — In 1993, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” His theorythat the world was divided into potentially warring civilizations — and later, his book on the topic — have been denounced by legions of critics, mainly on the liberal side. But it had and has retained one group of unlikely fans: Russian nationalists.

They saw in his definition of “Slavic-Orthodox culture” (including much of the former Soviet Union and reaching deep into East-Central Europe) a confirmation, albeit from a surprising quarter, of their own view of the world. That is, that Russia is and must remain the central and organizing power of a collection of states that history, religion and culture had predisposed to unity, and to a distinctly separate identity from a West that would devour them behind a front of “spreading democracy.”

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is an ardent Huntington-ite. His much quoted view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century signaled a deeply felt loss of a world in which Russia ruled not so much by force but by cultural and political leadership. In such a view, the nations that comprise that civilization are less important than the civilization itself. For a Slavic-Orthodox state to shift to the West would not be a choice, but a betrayal of the bloc’s essence.

In a few weeks, the state that lives on the fault line between Huntington’s Western and Slavic civilizations will have to make what James Sherr, one of its foremost Western observers, calls “a civilizational choice.” Sherr writes that the European Union is about to offer Ukraine an Association Agreement and trade pact that will “provide tangible mechanisms of integration with the EU” — an open invitation to shift the core of Ukraine’s statehood to the West.

There is another offer on the table, from the east. Russia has constructed a Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) that takes in Belarus to its west and Kazakhstan to its south. The ECU is said to be both rules-based and relatively efficient, “harmonized with international norms and the World Trade Organization regime.” Russia is not just inviting Ukraine to join the ECU — it is seeking to frighten it into it, instituting the beginnings of a trade embargo to show what might happen on a bigger scale if its offer were spurned, and threatening higher prices for the gas it supplies to its neighbor.

The coming clash of civilizations over gay rights

John Lloyd
Aug 12, 2013 20:54 UTC

Supporters of gay rights have been protesting in Western cities this past week, picketing in front of Russian embassies and consulates. They’re protesting the passing of a law in the Russian parliament that bans “homosexual propaganda” directed at under 18-year olds — which if interpreted strictly, bans all public demonstrations and much public and private discussion on the issue.

Not so long ago how a country’s administration handled its ‘homosexual problem’ would be thought of as its business. Many still think that way. But most Western democracies don’t. They haven’t just adopted legislation that enjoins equality of treatment for all, irrespective of sexuality. They have taken seriously, for the most part, the claims made by gay organizations for many years: that discrimination against gay men and women is an affront to civil liberties, and that when some states pursue discriminatory policies, those who do not should make their disapproval clear. Gay rights are now part of the world’s clash of cultures.

This is presently true most clearly in the United States and the U.K., not because they have been ahead of the pack in equality — they have lagged a bit behind Canada and the Scandinavian states, ever the pioneers in such matters — but because they have had, and still have, the most contentious relations with Russia.

Where is Russia headed?

John Lloyd
Jul 24, 2013 12:20 UTC

Masha Lipman, one of the great chroniclers of Russian politics, told a story at a conference I attended outside of Moscow earlier this week. It was about two scholars who, in a recent discussion about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, fell into a savage argument. One saw the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, the other as a release from tyranny. So radical and bitter was the disagreement that they came to blows, an unheard of event in the generally decorous world of Russian academia. 

Lipman also noted that, in a discussion in the Duma (parliament), several deputies called for the abolition of the country’s Independence Day on June 12, established in 1990. One suggested moving the date to whenever National Day took place in the 10th century, when “Rus” was first formed — in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine — a none too subtle way of saying that Russia was once a Slavic empire, and could be again.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, might agree with the deputies. It would be surprising if he did not — he is, after all, the same man who said in 2005 that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Russia’s reckoning

John Lloyd
May 7, 2013 18:05 UTC

Russia is now in a hard, even dangerous, place. A series of shocks are coming, and it is not well placed to weather them. It has, to be sure, little debt: Vladimir Putin’s administration is proud that the state has borrowed little and has built up a multibillion-ruble national reserve fund. Yet even that is ending, and the basics of the economy are weak. The former Marxists among Russia’s ruling class will know that the economic base determines the political and social superstructure. It is not looking good for them.

What’s worse, Russia isn’t a major player in the global economy. According to Eurostat figures, it has 2.4 percent of world gross domestic product, slightly under that of India; and 2.6 percent of world trade, slightly more than India has. It’s important, especially to Europe, in one significant economic aspect: It ships very large amounts of energy: 63 percent of European Union imports from Russia is oil, a further 9 percent is natural gas, with a further 3 per cent for coal. Icy Russia heats Europe. In return, Russia has, for the past decade, been enriched, as a once impoverished nation, which defaulted in 1998, surged to a lifestyle that supports a burgeoning middle class.

But oil and natural gas prices are falling now, and don’t look like they will rise again soon: “Over the coming few years,” writes Forbes commentator Bill Conerly, “look for oil prices to decline at least below $80 a barrel and quite possibly more” because of increased production. Gas prices are worse: The once-mighty Gazprom, which had dictated prices and terms to those it supplied, has been forced to discount and saw its profits fall last year by $6.5 billion, or 15 percent. The warnings, inside and out of the country, that it was dangerously dependent on fossil fuels for its newfound wealth and strength are coming home to roost. Russia may face recession.

Boris Berezovsky: An oligarch who lost his status

John Lloyd
Mar 25, 2013 18:22 UTC

Among the initial wave of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky was the first among equals, and among the last.

By the mid- to late 1990s, he had become the most powerful figure, after the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, in the Kremlin. A mathematician and engineer of ability, Berezovsky leveraged an early success as a car salesman at a time of rampant inflation into huge wealth and control of media, auto, aviation and oil assets.

He strongly backed Vladimir Putin for president after Yeltsin’s resignation; indeed, he was his main promoter. In Putin, the apparently modest and amiable former KGB officer, Berezovsky saw somebody with self-discipline. He also saw somebody with the need for financial and intellectual support from somebody who had much of both – somebody like Berezovksy.

Bureaucracy will set you free

John Lloyd
Mar 13, 2013 19:37 UTC

Two movements, fundamentally opposed, are at work in the world: corruption and anti-corruption. The marketization of the economies of China, India and Russia in the past two decades has exacerbated the corruption in those countries. Businesspeople and politicians, often hardly distinguishable, become billionaires in tandem.

But corruption is falling out of favor in more and more countries as more and more governments realize that while it may get things done in the short term, it corrodes everything in the long term. As public anger rises everywhere against the grossest inequalities the modern world has seen, it provides the fuel for future fires. Bribes, the most common form of corruption, are a crime not just against the law but against the public. Those states now climbing the wealth ladder will risk worse than poverty if they do not grasp that truth.

What do they need? A good bureaucracy, that’s what.

For two centuries, disparaging bureaucracy has been a major component of our freedom myths. Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, George Orwell rynd Alexander Solzhenitsyn all made the bureaucrats  villains in their work. In Dickens’ 1857 masterpiece, Little Dorrit, an inventor, Daniel Doyce, goes gray attempting to register his invention at the Circumlocution Office ‑ a tragicomic institution dedicated to squashing all private initiative. He gets a final judgment that:

In Russia, unheeded cries of corruption

John Lloyd
Dec 18, 2012 17:34 UTC

In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate ‑ in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.

Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.

And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.

Wanted: Equitable capitalism, profitable socialism

John Lloyd
Oct 23, 2012 16:26 UTC

Socialism – real, no-private-ownership, state-controlled, egalitarian socialism – has been off the political agenda in most states, including Communist China, for decades. The mixture of gross inefficiency and varying degrees of repressive savagery that most such systems showed seems to have inoculated the world against socialism and confined support for it to the arts and sociology faculties of Western universities. But what was booted triumphantly out the front door of history may be knocking quietly on the back door of the present. The reason is inequality.

Pointing out inequality is a political attraction these days, and as good a dramatization of that as any is in the comparison between what Tony Blair, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, said about it in 2001, on the eve of his second election, and what Conservative leader David Cameron said about it in a speech in 2009, soon before the 2010 election that made him Prime Minister. Blair, questioned about rising inequality, responded that while he was concerned with poverty and its alleviation, he didn’t lose sleep about the rich being rich. “It’s not”, he said, invoking Britain’s most popular sports figure, “a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”

Cameron, referring to the recently published The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – a detailed argument that inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich – said the book showed that “among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.” That left and right should so switch places marks the shift that has taken place in the past decade, from living in societies where the tide of growth lifted all boats to one where most fear they’ll soon be sinking (assuming they already aren’t).

Changing the Moscow rules

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2012 20:48 UTC

Around the time Vladimir Putin started his first term as Russia’s president in 2000, a man named Gleb Pavlovsky appeared on the Moscow scene. Pavlovsky was a former dissident in Soviet times who called himself a “political technologist”, a highfalutin term for spin doctor. That isn’t to diminish him: Spin doctors in different administrations all over the world are among the most interesting political figures of contemporary times, because their job is to give a narrative about the government and the leaders they serve.

In doing so, they help give the narrative to the leaders themselves, who may not have worked out quite what they were going to do with power, since they were too busy getting and keeping it. They are the necessary middlemen between political power and the media. The media need a big story, and the spin doctors, or political technologists, are there to provide it.

Vladimir Putin, the man chosen by former President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, didn’t know what to do when he arrived. At the time Pavlovsky moved into the Kremlin as his aide, the new president was – as Pavlovsky later said – consumed with anxiety that he would not succeed in imposing his will on a Kremlin still full of aides who were not his choice. Putin, remember, was still less than a decade away from being a middle-ranking, surplus-to-requirements KGB officer.

After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?

John Lloyd
Mar 27, 2012 18:43 UTC

The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.

When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.

Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).

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