OWS, RT, Russia, What’s Next?



By: Dr. George Krasnow

RT (Russia Today TV News Network) has covered the Occupy Wall Street movement so extensively and boldly that it begs the question: What does the Kremlin have to do with the OWS movement?

From what I have observed in both Russia and the USA, the answer is: Very little or nothing at all, to my regret, which I’ll explain later.

More than a month– from September 17 when the OWS started in New York to October 21 when I returned from Moscow to Washington–I watched OWS the way Russians see it, through government-controlled TV channels.
I was struck by how little attention Russian media paid to this massive explosion of discontent that was clearly embarrassing to US government and media pundits who would much rather talk about “lack of democracy” in Russia than American about 1% “plutocrats.” After checking online reports from Truthout, I realized that in OWS did not receive a coverage it deserved.

So I had remained unaware of the movement’s huge scale until I came back to my Alexandria home—and to a new TV set supplied with dozen channels, including RT. Now I’m glued to RT every morning. And what do I see?

  •  A dapper Iraq war veteran, US Marine Corps sergean reminds policemen after their brutal assault on peaceful occupiers that “this is not a war zone.”

  • Another veteran is struck with a tear-gas canister on his head so viciously that he required hospitalization.

  • Horror-stricken face of an 84 year old woman occupier disfigured by pepper spray.

  • A row of students, peacefully sitting, heads down, arms interlocked, in a gesture of defiance against the overwhelming force of 1% conscience; and policemen dozing them with pepper spray.

  • Dozens journalists arrested and manhandled by police.

  • Retired Philadelphia police captain among the protesters in New York; he says his comrades could also be laid off, and many obey their orders only reluctantly.

I am not much of a TV watcher. Last time I watched RT was more than a year ago at my friend’s home. Now I am pleased with how much RT programming has grown and matured. I hear RT buzz from my neighbors, tennis partners and casual acquaintances. I hear them saying: “We learn more about the USA from RT than from any American channel.”

RT’s American Success Story

I switch back to CNN, Fox, and NBC I’ve watched for years. Cindy Lohan is in trouble again, as she was half a year ago; Herman Cain’s sexual peccadillos are on display. So is Sandusky’s alleged pedophilia. The brutality of some, NOT ALL, Middle East dictators is routinely condemned.

Click RT. It’s not just OWS coverage. RT deals with serious domestic and global issues. An array of competent reporters covers all corners of the world. Max Keiser dissects financial and economic woes. Thom Hartman frames them into The Big Picture. Peter Lavelle’s Crossfire juxtaposes diverse views from a broad political spectrum.

Who else but RT would break the taboo on a discussion of Israeli nuclear arms? Among RT guests former US Senator Mike Gravel or Paul Craig Roberts andf former Assistant Secretary in the Reagan administration. Both call attention to Benjamin Netanyahu’s dangerous gambling with world peace, as he plans an Israeli attack on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon production sites. As US media retches up Iran’s demonization, the task of a gadfly of US politics falls on RT shoulders.

No wonder that now RT is the second most-watched foreign language channel in the States after BBC. In fact, RT’s coverage of the United States is so good that it could be just as well called UST.
But where is Russia?

If RT’s coverage of US is commendable, this cannot be said of its coverage of Russia. To be sure, it has some good Russian programs, from Al Gurnov’s Spotlight to a raucous travelogue with Mark Ames. American viewers enjoy watching reels on the revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia, fate of Jewish diaspora in Caucasus and survival of exotic languages in Siberia.

With the approach of December 4 Russian elections, the Spotlight is aptly focused on leaders of major political parties vying for the seats in the State Duma. Still, I wish there were more RT discussions of Russian politics and foreign policy.

What is missing on RT is Russia herself. There is no sustained narrative of Russian history, religion, literature, philosophy, architecture, art, and culture in general. RT.com has a link to Russian language instruction, but “The Sexiest Philologist in the World” is more likely to distract from language leaning. There seems to be no room for a discussion of Russia’s socio-political system. There is no indication that there might be a special Russian perspective on the unrest in Middle East, EU financial crisis and the OWS movement.

Is Russia Still Shocked?

Since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, Russia seems still dazed by “Shock Therapy” of early 1990s. It regained its historical name but not yet its national conscience. Russia remains a country of divided mind.

On the one hand, the country’s traditional name is now restored. After all, ethnic Russians constitute over 80% of the population. The remaining 20%, assimilated in various degrees, can handle Russian language. Russia’s national symbols, the Eagle and the Tricolor flag, have replaced the ideological Hammer and Sickle, Red Star and Red Flag.

On the other hand, Russia’s official name, The Russian Federation, harks back to the USSR. President Yeltsin made it a successor state to neither Russia of the tsars nor the Provisional Government which had ran the country until the Bolsheviks overthrew it on November 7, 1917. It was Tsar Nikolai’s successor, his younger brother Mikhail, who empowered the Provisional Government to conduct general election to Constituent Assembly which was to decide on the form of government. (For more read my 2010 article “June 12: Russia Day or Remember Tsar Mikhail II Day?”)

Upon learning that they lost the election, Lenin’s Bolsheviks forcibly dispersed democratically-elected Constituent Assembly. Willingly or not, Russia’s present leaders got stuck with this illegal and violent legacy of Soviet State that goes against the grain of their democratizing aspirations.

Lenin’s embalmed body still lay in the Mausoleum on the Red Square as a symbolic reminder that Russia’s 73-year-long dalliance with Communism has not yet been buried. The question remains: Would Russian leaders want to emulate Russia’s first democratic enterprise with universal suffrage and Constituent Assembly? Or do they feel fealty to dictatorship that spurned the will of the people?

That’s where I wish that “the Kremlin,” or whoever manages RT, would provide a Russian perspective on OWS and global unrest in general. Since the Kremlin pays for RT’s budget, one would expect that RT would serve Russia’s national interests, while eschewing censorship. One would expect that RT handling of OWS would be infused with a Russian perspective.

There is none. What is really Russia’s view of OWS? I suspect that not only RT managers, but the Kremlin too cannot articulate one. Of course, the Kremlin likes to see the US embarrassed by OWS as well as by rough police tactics to suppress it. The brutality of Russia’s own police in curtailing Moscow’s own demonstrations begins to look “not so bad” when compared with the American pepper sprayers, man-handlers, and tear-gas canister throwers. The Kremlin can indeed feel a perverse pleasure at the fact that all Russian demonstrations are MINISCULE compared with those in the States.

Which is worse, Oligarchy or Plutocracy?

But this is not a perspective. It’s more like a glee at the distress of your competitor. The Kremlin is not too eager to show OWS scenes to Russian viewers lest they get inspired for Occupying Russian Banks.

The truth is that Russia’s economic system is not so much different from that of the USA. After all, the implementation of Jeffrey Sachs’s “shock therapy” reforms was entrusted to a Harvard team of Neo-Liberal economists headed by Professor Andrei Shleifer and overseen Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, both of whom headed Treasury under Clinton. Comparing what the two did to the US economy with what the now jailed swindler Bernard Madoff did to his investors, the columnist Robert Scheer came to the conclusion that the two secretaries are “Too Big to Jail” as his recent Truthdig article is titled.

As to what the Harvard team has done to Russia, via the Anatoly Chubais clique next to Yeltsin, read Janine Wedel’s “Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe,”  E. Wayne Merry’s PBSinterview and my own 2006 article “Would Harvard Ever Help Russia?”

The US-sponsored “Russian reforms” resulted in the oligarchic system of state-controlled crony capitalism. With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, the wings of a few oligarchs were clipped, but the oligarchic system has remained intact, insinuating itself into all pores of Russian economy.

Using their access to the Yeltsin government during 1991-1997, a score of unscrupulous “reformers” simply robbed Russia of its collective wealth. The wealth had been accumulated, first, by “communization” of all factories, shops, private property and farms during and after the civil war. Then it was greatly increased by the labor of all Soviet people, including GULAG prisoners, during 73 years of “sweat, blood, and tears” Soviet rule. The robbers came to be collectively called the “oligarchs.” Now economic disparity in Russia between the super-rich and ordinary people is most certainly greater than in the USA. It is more like .01% versus 99.99%

The oligarchs have both the means and the reasons to keep the corrupt system intact. Powerless to rein them in, the government seems content with maintaining a semblance of stability, helped by wind-fall profits from sales of hydrocarbons and other natural resources. Whatever political and even military-strategic differences the Kremlin may have with the US and NATO, these are overshadowed by the fact that Russian economy has been subordinated to the demands of “global economy” which, in turn, is controlled by the might of US dollar and US military machine.

The “success” of Neo-Liberal intervention in Russia has sent its US sponsors on a spree of manipulating “deregulated markets” at home. This spree precipitated the 2008 global crisis. The American big media bemoans the death of democracy in Russia under Putin. But if Bill Moyers, speaking of the United States, is right that“Plutocracy and Democracy Don’t Mix,” then one can surely say that the greatest obstacle for democratic development in Russia is not Putin, but the oligarchy.

Is the Kremlin Learning from OWS?

Far from being the Kremlin’s “puppet”, RT may yet teach the Kremlin important lessons. If it watches RT coverage of OWS, the Kremlin may well realize that Russian revolutionaries have misled Russia nation into not ONE, but TWO most tragic follies of the 20th century.

First, following Karl Marx’s dogmas, they revolted against capitalism, nationalized all factories and collectivized all farms. Second, some seventy years later, their descendants reversed the course 180 degrees. Setting Russia on the course of Milton Friedman’s “unfettered capitalism,” they “privatized” just about everything. Russia moved back to Square One. However, property was not returned to its original owners, but went to crooks and the offspring of those who had once nationalized it.

Did Russian reformers have any choice but follow the Neo-Liberal “Washington consensus”? Would it not have been better to take a more gradual approach and follow, say, the Swedish model which combined the principles of free-market with socialist welfare state? They would probably reply that the IMF, to whom the Russian government was indebted, gave them no choice. They simply had to follow Neo-Liberal precepts then in vogue—and in power—and ignore such outstanding critics of “market fundamentalism,” as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the author of “Globalization and Its Discontents” (See especially his June 2000 interview in The Progressive magazine) or Russia’s native son Wassily Leontief, also a Harvard economics professor and Nobel laureate.

A Third Way for Russia?

At any rate, Russia should not have thrown away its unique experience in running centrally-planned economy, no matter how ineffective it was. Instead, it plunged back to the very same “capitalism in its highest imperialist form,” from which Lenin’s Bolsheviks allegedly “freed” Russia in 1917 and which meanwhile evolved into “disaster capitalism,” as Naomi Klein aptly calls it. Post-Communist Russia should have tried a third way that takes advantage of all the virtues of free market while retaining national planning and social justice for all.

In the very least, Chubais should have distributed the “vauchers” not into the pockets of oligarchs, but to factory workers to make them co-owners. To be sure, Western advice was needed in both organizing such enterprises and marketing their products. There was already considerable international experience in running such enterprises, like the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in the United States which includes dozens of successful companies employing over 10 million people.

All that US government had to do was give the Russians a realistic choice of different forms of private enterprise, including ESOPs, so that they could take what was most compatible with their already “socialized” economy and their national tradition. Instead, US government gave the “Russian reform” contract to the now defunct Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID). According Wedel, the exclusive contract was granted after normal bidding procedure had been waived “for foreign policy considerations.”

As it turned out, the Harvard team not only set Russia on a wrong macroeconomic course, but also violated US law. In 1997 the contract was cancelled as two team leaders, Professor Andrei Shleifer and Jonathan Hay, were accused of illegal investment in enterprises they “reformed.” After a long litigation, in 2005 Shleifer and Hay agreed to repay the Treasury $2 million each, and Shleifer’s wife was fined for $1.5 million. Harvard University, where Larry Summers became president, was forced to pay $26.5, the largest penalty in its history, back to US tax-payers. (For more see my article “Would Harvard Ever Help Russia?”)

Secure a Free Market for Ideas First

First and foremost pre-condition for a normal functioning of free-market in global economy is the existence of “free market” for ideas, including the idea that each country has the right to choose an economic model that is suitable to its national character and history. Unless there is a free exchange of ideas, beyond the Neo-Liberal fetishism, the “free market” for finance and commodities will inevitably favor those who want to impose it, by guile (as in Russia) and force (as in Serbia, Iraq, Libya etc.), on the rest of the world.

What do we do next?

On Thanksgiving afternoon, November 24, I went to McPherson Square in Washington to see what occupiers were doing there. There was a camp of dozens makeshift blue-colored tents and a crowd of about two hundred people. The weather was balmy, the mood relaxed; some occupiers were throwing football; others small-danced, ate sandwiches, talked to onlookers and took camera shots. I talked to some of them. None complained about police harassment.

The overwhelming concern was “What do we do next? Where do we go?”

The consensus was that “we are not against capitalism as such, but against CRAPITALISM,” that is against financial manipulation of global market by the 1% or fewer people. These manipulations threaten to undermine the very idea of free enterprise of which America is a great practitioner. After all, the US gave rise to such high-tech giants as Steve JobsBill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Perhaps their wealth is excessive but, unlikeRussian oligarchs, they did not gain it by exploiting access to the White House.

Recently, Bill Gates joined forces with Warren Buffett, the financier, asking American billionaires to give half their wealth to charities. Russian oligarchs, by contrast, are not in a rush to embrace charitable causes.

Finally, this article could not have been written without yet another American high-tech invention, the online non-profit Wikipedia, founded by Jimmy Wales in 2001. It has since become the most reliable, accessible, and quick (Wiki!) source of information for millions around the world, in their own languages.

Wikipedia has upheld the good image of the United States by far more effectively than all US/NATO wars “to spread democracy and globalization.” Since Wikipedia staff upholds its operational integrity by refusing to accept commercial advertisement, they ask all users for donations. I am happy to contribute whatever proceeds I get for this article to Wikipedia. Oh, yes, don’t forget to click Occupy Wall Street!

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