Expert analysis or crude regime-change info war?

This is a story in the Guardian about apparent links found in the ‘Panama papers’ between relatives and friends of two people who work in the Kremlin and offshore accounts.

The Panama papers recall is a leak of private information sponsored by extremely wealthy free-market financier George Soros [1] and, arguably, through its sponsorship of one of the pseudo-journalistic bodies involved by the US government [2]. It is not illegal to use an offshore bank account (unless specific laws in the user’s home country have been broken). In fact then there is very little to the story. This is why it has to be dressed up with smears and innuendo.

This article is no exception. The author starts off with a mention of the recent death (possibly a murder, the investigation in the US continues) of the former head of RT. There is no suggestion about why this is mentioned in this context. It isn’t clear if we are supposed to think that this was a Kremlin sponsored murder. If not – why is it mentioned at all? Then there is a story about how the son of someone who used to be the head of the Russian railways owns property in London despite his father being an ‘anti-Western idealogue’. (That probably means he criticized the West). That’s it in terms of pre-smears.

Then we get to the real meat of the story. The wife of the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov managed some companies through an offshore structure. And the godfather of Putin’s daughter had some money in an offshore account. That’s it. Not exactly a steak.

The above is reported as:

While ordinary Russians were being instructed to tighten their belts in the ideological battle with the west, their rulers were employing Mossack Fonseca to infiltrate their money into enemy territory

This sentence contains so much that is false and erroneous it is difficult to know where to start. In fact the leaked documents do not show that the ‘rulers’ of Russia were using offshore accounts. In this report at any rate two friends or relatives of the ‘rulers’ were. And then – what ‘ideological battle with the West’? The author seems to be living in an imaginary world of his own making. Russia has been trying to form a partnership with the West for some time. For example; they seek Western capital to develop their oil industry. They have been seeking to work together on counter-terrorism and security more generally. Russia is a member of the WTO. They are signatories to the European Human Rights Convention. They have been modernizing their social infrastructure along Western lines. Yes; it has all gone sour over Crimea – but where is this ‘ideological battle’? (One suspects that by ‘ideological battle’, the author really means ‘they disagree with our view of how their country should be run’). And ‘enemy territory’? That is just silly. The author is mocking the ‘rulers’ of Russia for investing funds in ‘enemy territory’; but who created the recent wave of enmity? It was the US and EU who started sanctions and broke off various relations – such as PACE and some NATO forums, not Russia. This is childish in its lack of bearings in reality.

Then we have:

It is of course not a secret that Kremlin insiders run Russia for their own enrichment, but this barrage of revelations provides extraordinary levels of detail, and lays bare the nature of how Russia is governed in ways we have not seen before.

When we have phrases like ‘of course it is not a secret’ or (another typical phrase in this genre) ‘it is widely believed’ we know we are being fed narrative lines which are not being substantiated with fact-based reporting. Even a glance at the news from Russia shows a series of decisions being made from the (elected) leadership designed to develop Russian interests. To develop the economy and society. The picture of a basket-case third-world country run by a dictator creaming off the wealth of the nation and stashing it away in offshore accounts is phantasy projected onto reality. Again; anyone who follows the news (not just Russian media) can see that the leadership of Russia is working to develop the country. The British government for example promotes Russia as a suitable country for British firms to do business with:

Russia improved to 62nd in the World Bank ˜Ease of Doing Business” ranking in 2014. It’s making some headway in meeting President Putin’s target of reaching 20th position by 2018 after starting from the position of 122nd.

and

Russia has started major investment and modernisation programmes which will provide opportunities for UK firms. It is looking for foreign investment, expertise, technology and resources to help. [3]

This summary from the OECD also reflects the fact that the current leadership of Russia has been successfully developing and modernizing the economy:

The new fiscal rule has anchored budgetary policies, but there are loopholes due to the possibility of tapping into oil funds, providing guarantees and shifting unfunded spending obligations on regions. Increasing attention is being paid to public sector efficiency. The monetary policy framework benefits from the transition to inflation targeting and a flexible exchange rate regime, although the importance of administered and food prices in inflation increase transparency requirements. The banking sector is stable but a consumer credit boom poses risks.

and

The authorities seem to have become more energetic on fighting corruption and strengthening the legal protection of businesses. However, capital outflows and the low market valuation of Russian companies suggest that business is not yet fully convinced. Law enforcement appears to be uneven, whistleblower protection is weak, and civil society organisations and non‑aligned media face constraints. Red tape has been reduced, and recently adopted federal initiatives tackle many administrative barriers. There has been less progress on the regional level. Governance of state-owned enterprises has improved somewhat, but privatisation plans were recently downsized. Notwithstanding WTO accession in 2012, market opening is meeting resistance. Transport system bottlenecks pose barriers to more geographically balanced growth. [4]

We’ve quoted the full extract. It is of course a mixed picture. (Though the critical reader will be aware that the OECD is firmly behind privatization of state assets and a market-run economy and this necessarily influences their assessment).

At any event it is clear that the reality is as far from the image of Russian being run by ‘rulers’ for their own benefit as it could possibly be. The author of the Guardian piece is doing what so many Western based ‘Russia experts’ seem to do; they make a living out of embellishing a narrative about ‘Russian corruption’ and crooked leaders. That Russia is developing. That the facts are otherwise is simply ignored. After all there is a circuit on which these people can write these articles and books and it would be bad for the industry to tell the truth. We cannot tell whether the author of this article has looked and then decided to stick with his phantasy world anyway – or whether he never even bothered to look at the subject about which he is writing in the first place.

This Guardian article has the not unusual attribution at the top-left. In this case it is credited to something called the New East network. Recall at this point that the Guardian has started carrying content provided by amongst others the Bill Gates Foundation [5] and US government propaganda outlet – Radio Free Europe. [6] This appears in part to be another route by which interested parties can place content in the Guardian. The Guardian has a page describing their ‘New East network’.  What is striking is that so many of the ‘partners’ i.e. those who will be providing the content, are not journalists. They are partisan think-tanks and single-issue media groups. For example; take one partner ‘Caucasian Knot’. Briefly looking at their web site this appears to be a campaigning organisation devoted in particular to ‘human rights’ and defending journalists in the Caucuses. Who funds it? We are told no more than “The edition is funded from various charitable foundations“. – Why not tell us which? (Does that include “USAID”?) Caucasian Knot is registered with the Russian state media regulator. Presumably then they are allowed to do business and print the stories that they print. At the same time as the Guardian tells its readers about the “greater censorship of online publishing” in Russia  [7] they are teaming up with those ‘censored’ outlets to print – and re-print – their stories. Other members of the ‘New East network’ include the Carnegie Foundation – a US based foundation. Specifically the partner is the Moscow office of the Carnegie Foundation. Again; while telling stories about repression in Russia the Guardian reveals that Western NGOs and independent media can and do operate in Russia. At the very least the real picture is much more nuanced than the one-sided narrative line about ‘crackdowns’ and ‘censorship’.

There is nothing wrong with a media outlet reporting on stories produced by lobby groups. However; in ‘proper’ journalism what happens is that the journalist assesses the press release (for that is what it is) and reports on it, in context; such and such an organisation has claimed she might say. She might then fact-check the claims and report these results to her readers. She might also inform her readers about the allegiances of the organisation making the claims. The new form of ‘journalism’ which the Guardian is developing is to skip this step. Lobby groups of various kinds can simply place content directly in the Guardian. The Panama papers leak itself is an instance of placed content; the leak was helped by funding from wealthy financier George Soros, who has a track record of interfering in political processes. [8] The material in this stream of Guardian articles is presented as journalism. The only tell-tale sign for the reader who might otherwise take this at face value is a small attribution on the top-left of the page – an attribution which is easily missed. These are information products planted in the news with a specific aim of manipulating public opinion.

What we are looking at is sponsored ‘information products’. The target of these products is the current (elected and popular) Russian government with its belief that businesses of strategic importance should be in state hands. The likely aim is to replace this government with one run by the pro-Western liberal opposition in Russia. The pro-Western liberal opposition in Russia is a very minority interest – coming behind the actual opposition, which is the Communist party and the parliamentary socialist Fair Russia party, in elections. [9] Nonetheless the democratic preferences of Russians notwithstanding the aim is perhaps to finally achieve that longed-for goal of total acquisition by Western finance capital of all of Russia’s extractative industries. All of this will be done in the name of ‘human rights’ of course.

Notes

1. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/putting-it-on-putin/

2. https://www.rt.com/news/338683-wikileaks-usaid-putin-attack/

3. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/exporting-to-russia/doing-business-in-russia-russia-trade-and-export-guide

4. http://www.oecd.org/economy/economic-survey-russian-federation.htm

5. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/mock-concern-about-hiv-used-to-promote-the-us-corporate-world/

6. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/more-rfe-propaganda-on-the-guardian/

7. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/20/donald-trump-defends-vladimir-putin-endorsement

8. https://www.rt.com/news/264037-soros-ukraine-poroshenko-leak/

9. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/the-opposition-in-russia/

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