How Honest Is Illarionov?
Colorado Springs-- Last week Andrei Illarionov, a former advisor to President Putin, addressed the 29th Annual Heritage Foundation Resource Bank. Illarianov's speech was warmly welcomed and made a deep impression on the audience. At the end of the evening, some people had tears in their eyes and Illarianov received the standing ovation. Sitting in the audience, I looked around in complete disbelief at what I was witnessing. Is Illarianov's speaking fee really enough for him to believe the things he said? And are Americans really naÃ¯ve and ignorant enough about Russia to buy what he is selling?
Mr. Illarionov read his speech from his notes the entire time, glancing at the crowd only a few seconds of the time. For the first fifteen minutes of his talk, the former presidential economic advisor spoke of free markets, democracies, dictatorships and other general topics, to impress the audience with his "knowledge". This part was hardly controversial; everyone in the audience agrees that people live better in free-market democracies rather than under Communist autocracies. Having stoked expectations and built up the audience, Illarianov then preceded to make his most outrageous claims.
According to Mr. Illarionov, some Jewish people are persecuted in Russia. Private businesses aren't allowed to exist, and the Kremlin, which first came for the Jews, then for non-governmental organizations and independent media outlets, finally came knocking on his door last year. Illarianov described the recent NGO bill as a disaster and a crackdown on democracy. He said that the actions of the Russian Army in Chechnya (which in his speech made sound like a separate country) were a long list of atrocities. President Putin has allegedly made alliances with Hamas and other terrorists, and now the list of the world's most repressed countries according to Illarionov reads "Iran, Syria, Somalia...now Russia".
I will briefly address each of these issues, which make me think that I know nothing about the country where I grew up, where my parents live; where my friends have private businesses and work for the media, and our family's closest Jewish friend is a successful physician, still practicing medicine at the age of 75.
First of all, the Russian government does not persecute anyone today like the Soviets did. There is a lot of organized crime due to corruption and economic chaos, and chaos is exactly what Russia has had since the days of Yeltsin's Western-supported "reformers". Russia has never been a truly democratic country, unless gangland violence and multi-billion dollar theft is what Americans think of as a free markets and democracy. It is very hard to lose a democracy if you have never had one. It is true that there is a lot of ethnic and racially motivated violence, and the Kremlin is doing its best to prevent it. As for attacks by young thugs on blacks and other foreigners, Russia Blog has reported several of these incidents. You can read more about them in the Crime section of this site.
No one knocks on anybody's doors in the middle of the night. Jewish Russians and ethnic Caucasians are prominent and successful in all levels of business and government. The private "businessman" Mikhail Khodorkovsky went to jail because he didn't pay his taxes and tried to sell 40% of Russia's oil reserves to American corporations. It was purely a business decision on the Kremlin's part, and had very little to do with Khordokovsky funding anti-Putin opposition. Now the former richest man in Russia resides in solitary confinement in Siberia, 12 miles from the Chinese border. Read more about his life here.
Russia Blog has commented on the NGO bill before. Please read our article on that bill and the reasons why it was passed here. Briefly, there are an estimated 450,000 NGOs in Russia, and only a few thousand of these organizations conduct honest and transparent non-profit activities. The rest of them launder money, serve as fronts for espionage, or directly sponsor election campaigns. In comparison, U.S. campaign finance laws don't allow donations by foreigners to political candidates or parties, so why should Russia be so different? Also, the part of the bill where Russian NGOs must report to the government was removed by the Duma, however, almost everyone who is now attacking the legislation fails to mention this.
Russia Blog has reported frequently about the terrorist attacks in Chechnya and around Russia - see the Terrorism section of this site. Chechnya is one of 89 Russian states and republics, and it has been a part of Russia longer than many U.S. states have been part of the USA. Unfortunately the civil war in Chechnya has attracted many foreign terrorists from the Middle East, including avowed members of Al-Qaeda. However, Russian security forces have succeeded in restoring some calm to this region, and in recent elections the Chechens voted for a new parliament and a new constitution. The region is now much more stable than it was during Yeltsin's term.
Russia Blog has also written about the recent Hamas visit to Moscow. Somehow Mr. Illarionov forgot to mention that Putin never met with the Hamas leaders, and his Foreign Minister Ivanov told Hamas to "get serious and start talking to Israel, because if they don't they will never be recognized". Calling Putin and Hamas friends is nothing but nonsense, anymore than meetings between the U.S. and representatives of Iran's government would mean that Bush and Ahmadinejad are now friends. Russian military training with China is nothing but a humiliating offer Russia cannot refuse.
At the very end, Illarionov called for the audience to stand up and fight for freedom. He actually promised "to fight for freedom till the last drop of [his] blood!" Well, this sacrifice seems unnecessary, because there's no one to fight to the death against, and there's no one who wants to draw his blood in the first place.
Many of Illarianov's listeners got the idea of putting sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin's human rights violations don't stop. When I listened to that interpretation of the speech and thought about the picture that uninformed Americans received of Hamas and Putin uniting in an axis of evil against America and democracy, I wanted to cry myself. How unfair is it to brazenly lie like that to the directors of American think tanks, and wreck U.S.-Russian cooperation in energy, diplomacy, and the fight against international terrorism?
Hostile attitudes and sanctions won't help Russia or America. If Americans are really concerned about the state of democracy and the free market economy in Russia, they should watch the beautiful example set by IKEA, which today runs four stores in Moscow. IKEA doesn't give or take bribes, and it doesn't call for sanctions or for a bloody fight against the Kremlin. It chases profits and by doing so proves that Russia is a modern country, which needs more IKEAs and less Illarionovs.
If the U.S. can pursue commercial engagement with China, why can't it do so with a far more free (but chaotic) society in Russia, where websites are not blocked and where people are not jailed for their political or religious beliefs?