Putin The Dictator

Posted in Current Events | Posted by rodger |


A poll released yesterday shows that Putin is the sixth most respected man world wide.  In regions outside the US and EU, he ranks second or third, right after the local heroes.  More important to you, the defense department wants spend about a trillion of your hard earned dollars defending you from the evil mad dictator dwarf.  I figure for that much money, you should at least know what you are being protected from.

IRRITATION ALERT:   If you are an American, everything you know about Putin comes from what you have read in the American media, and the truth is going to make you very irritable. If we are going to talk about why Russians keep Putin in office, we have to say the nice things that the Russians think about him, and you won’t like that. You may not want to read this post.

Putin is neither devil nor angel, but he is nothing like what you have been led to believe.

Today we are going to talk about how he stays in Power. Tomorrow will be juicier when we talk about just how corrupt he is, and then we’ll try to explain to Americans just how much power he has and how the Russian government really works.

The first thing you need to know is that Putin is in no way a “dictator”.  “Dictator” seems so be just a title that American media gives to everyone who doesn’t like us.  He is the democratically elected leader of democratic (if heavily corrupt) country. He has to stand for election periodically and he is bound by constitutional term limits. The Russian constitution does not limit the total terms a man can be president but limits them to two consecutive terms at a time.  He served two consecutive terms as president, stepped down for one term, and then ran again. Dictators don’t do that.

Also unlike a dictator, he does not make laws, and unlike Obama, he respects that limitation. As the popular leader of the largest political party, he has considerable influence over the Duma, but he can still only enforce laws they pass. This has hampered his fight against corruption and his drive to reform the justice system. The Duma, being filled with people even more corrupt than the US congress, just won’t pass any serious anti-corruption legislation, even for him. It would be too hard on their friends.

If you’re a right thinking American, you have to been saying “Wait a minute. If he isn’t a dictator, how come he’s been president forever?” After all, every western news outlet tells you that he is a horrible dictator who holds on to power by murdering his enemies and brain washing Russians by controlling every word they hear or see in the media.

The people who write that have been watching too many old black and white movies about the Soviet Union.

The reason he gets re-elected is because, from the Russian point of view, he is very good at his job. Just like Americans, Russians vote their pocket books. Living standards in Russia have doubled and redoubled since Putin came to office, and the average Russian now makes about six times as much as they made when Putin was elected. Ten times as many Russians have cars. Microwaves, flat screen televisions, washing machines, pet food, and dozens of other things that were scarce or unknown 20 years ago are common today. Compare that with the fact that you and I are making the same as or less than we made in 1990 and tens of thousands of Americans have been forced out of the workforce or into part time jobs – and you understand why the Russians love Putin.  If Obama had done that instead of driving us into stagnation and poverty, we would wish he could run for a third term.

For those of you who believe that Putin controls every word of news the Russians hear and has them all brainwashed, I have one question: Where do you live, the 1930s? Do you think this is a world where border guards rip up smuggled newspapers and the KGB smashes unlicensed radios?  Get serious.

If you don’t know anything else, you must have heard of that marvelous new invention called the internet. The internet in Russia is censored on only three topics, child exploitation, instructions on how to make explosives, and terrorist recruiting.  Unlike China, the internet in Russia is an open highway to the rest of the world.

Russians can read anything on the internet, including BBC, CNN, Der Speigel and dozens of other western news sources that broadcast or publish in Russian. They read Yahoo News, occasionally watch Fox News for a laugh, and can even read this page on this blog.  Many of them do.

The situation on the internal media is about the same as ours. In America people get 90% of their news from three networks, Fox News (mouthpiece of the Republican party), MSNBC (mouthpiece of the Democratic party and all liberal causes) and CNN (It used to be a news network but now runs hours of programming about eating food in foreign countries).  No one has ever accused them of being impartial. Besides hating each other, they are Russo phobic and stick the American party line – unless they are jumping on Obama.

The situation in Russia is very similar. Most people get their news from the three main networks and those networks are owned by oligarchs who like Russia and most of them like Putin. On any night 90% of the international news is identical on CNN and Moscow Channel1, except that Moscow news will run a few stories, such as the story about rigged voting machines in Chicago and stories about the massive Nazi torchlight marches in Ukraine, which CNN will carefully protect you from. They can’t just make up things to print because there is that nasty internet that would expose them. They can, however, select stories and topics that reflect well on Russia and they do, just as the American media run stories that make us look good.

Internal news is about the same as in the US, a house fire is a house fire and a murder is a murder and inflation is news in both countries. Russia still has a lot of smaller papers that are very anti-Putin and still publish every day. One of the best that you can read is The Moscow Times (themoscowtimes.com).  It gets funds from the Russian government, publishes in English every day in Moscow and would make Putin’s teeth chatter if he really cared what the news says about him.

The point is that Putin does not, and cannot, control every word Russians hear and does not stay in power by brainwashing the Russian people. In the modern world, it can’t be done.

The third leg of his popularity is one Americans can never seem to grasp. He is a MAN. Russians don’t have any use for what we call “presidential attitude”, which seems to mean “mealy mouthed, indecisive and determined to never, ever offend anyone”.

Putin’s reputation is that he is a workaholic, heavy into the martial arts, physically fit and absolutely loyal to his friends. In a country where most men are drunk part of most days, the fact that he is a teetotaler and has a reputation for always keeping his word, makes him very popular among the female electorate.

You are gonna be astounded at the next one. Russians know that Putin never lies to them. Of course that isn’t literally true, he is a politician, but he comes close.  He would never pull a stunt like Obama does when he claims that unemployment is down and forgets to mention that it’s because the economy is so bad that people have given up looking for work.  Obama has been claiming for a year that the unemployment rate is around 5% when 12% is closer to the truth. Putin wouldn’t do that. He tells it straight.

Here is a sampling of things Putin has told the Russian public in his annual call in show and in news briefings.

  1. We have a major problem with corruption and we are not making much progress in stopping it.
  2. Up to 20% of the federal budget is still being stolen or misdirected. Our efforts to clean up the situation have not been successful.
  3. Business in Russia will never improve unless we can establish a rule of law. Very few people will invest money in a country without a legal system that can be trusted to defend their property and personal rights, and we do not have that.
  4. We expect the economy to shrink in the next year and not improve until the year after that.
  5. No, it would be a nice idea to establish youth hostels around the country so college students could travel and learn about the country, but we can’t afford it, so it won’t happen.

Of course, he also passes on the good news, but he is a Man and men don’t avoid the truth. Try to imagine any American politician acting like that. Hard to picture, isn’t it?

So, he stays in power because he is good at his job and Russians like his personality. No brainwashing required.

Don’t worry if it sounds like we are whitewashing Putin. Tomorrow we talk about Putin and corruption. You’ll like that.









Freedom of Speech & Dead Reporters

Posted in Current Events | Posted by rodger |

Odd topic isn’t it.  I decided it was time to write about it because of all the stories I have read this week about oppressed Russian people and how everyone who disagrees with Putin meets a grisly end.

We’ve all seen the movies and heard the stories about the knock on the door in the middle of the night. We’ve all seen it on late night television. American media runs at least one story a month about some reporter or enemy of Putin being shot down in the street. We all know that Russians cower in silence and never speak above a whisper for fear of disappearing in the middle of the night.

Like virtually everything else you know about Russia, that’s totally wrong. One of the things I most appreciate about being in Russia is the sense of personal freedom.

Now, I’m a guy who likes Russia, so I could be lying, stupid, or just totally naive. I could be so caught up in making my wife’s country look good that I’m a tool fool, but hear me out. You might be surprised.

Ordinary Russians, people like you and me, have far more freedom of speech in Russia, in part, because there are no PC police and no PC rules. When it comes to speech, Russians are rational people who know that calling a cripple “mobility challenged” won’t get him out of that wheelchair. If you tell a Pollack joke, you won’t be sued and no one will gasp with disbelief. If there is a Pollack in the room, you could get a black eye, but no one is calling a lawyer.  Same for saying women shouldn’t be firefighters because they don’t have the upper body strength to pull hoses or expressing a belief that some races are just dumber and more violent than others.  You can even loudly proclaim that homosexuals are NOT the beloved of God, and even claim they disgust you without being fired, sued, or threatened.  Freedom of speech reigns.

Russians are also allowed to tell the truth to people around them. My Russian friends always ask me, “Aren’t all your American friends constipated all the time?  When you know you should tell the bastard to shove it up his butt, you smile and act nice. You must all suffer terrible, always holding your feelings in.” A Russian will tell you what he is really thinking.  If you are man enough, or woman enough, to handle blunt truth, it’s refreshing, but if your feelings are easily hurt, better stay home.

Russians also have the advantage that no one cares what they say. The secret police died somewhere around the Khrushchev era and no one is paid to listen to you, or record what you say, or care what you say. The right to be your own brand of jackass, jerk or nerd is highly respected. The biggest danger in shooting off your mouth is if you forget that Russians are a patriotic people. Odds are that if you stand up in the local bar and start criticizing Putin, or the Russian Army or much of anything else Russian except the local politicians, you  will go home carrying some of your teeth in your pocket. The secret police aren’t listening but the other guys in the bar are, and even the old drunks are tough in Russia.

So, with no PC police, an expectation of basic honesty and the Russian attitude that your opinions are your own damned business, the average Russian has a lot more freedom than we do. They may not have much say about who the next president will be, but no one is going to jail them if they refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding. We have become so used to watching every word we say that freedom of speech isn’t even a distant memory in the states, but it is alive and well in other countries.

I would like to leave the topic there, but I don’t need all the emails I’d get. We all know there have been some significant exceptions.  You’ve all heard that Russia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for a reporter. They drop like flies. You know that a desire for suicide is a high recommendation for an investigative reporter in Russia.  It’s also not a healthy place for whistle blowers. As in America, whistle blowers are paid off, but in Russia the payoff is likely to involve your body never being found.

Yep that’s really the way it was, but things have changed a bit.

When communism died, there was chaos. No rules, no laws, not even any gas for the police cars. It was not unusual in those days for armed men to walk into a business, put a gun to the owner’s head and make him sign over the business to them. I remember a case in the early days when armed men walked into the biggest Cadillac dealership in Moscow and announced that they owned the place.

Unfortunately for them, the owner was no fool and he had his own armed guards.  A gun battle broke out and several people called the police. According to the newspapers at the time, the police response was “They’re better armed than we are. The owner is on his own.” and they refused to leave the station.  It wasn’t just dangerous for reporters; the leading cause of death of businessmen was other businessmen.  In those days, it was easy for a reporter to get killed for exposing a mafia business or writing an expose about an oligarch or government corruption. Over a hundred reporters died of not-to-mysterious causes.

Those Wild West days are over now.  Police got better armed and developed some backbone and central authority was reestablished. People get tired of chaos and even the oligarchs and thugs who benefited from it got tired of worrying about dying every time they left the house. Russia rapidly re-civilized and joined the modern world, but some of those men are still around and they own a big chunk of Russia.

Since 2009, only seven reporters have been killed and all but two were either garden variety muggings or the normal outcome of covering wars and conflict.

The difference between the truth and what you read in the American news is that reporters or opposition figures being killed is very rare now, and Putin isn’t the one doing it. It’s not that he is such a nice man; it just wouldn’t make any sense.  Putin isn’t threatened by anybody. In a bad month, his approval rating drops way down to 80%.  There are very few people in Russia who want to criticize Putin and even fewer who want to listen.  He doesn’t need to kill anyone.

So, who did? Those people that we just talked about, who came up through a system so violent that Al Capone would have been considered a soft hearted amateur.  They have been civilized, mostly, now but sometimes old habits are hard to forget.

It isn’t totally over. Last February the Chechens assassinated Boris Nemtsov. He was a political activist and has-been who announced a press conference in which he was going to expose corruption and dirty dealings by Chechen officials. Pulling the sheets off a Klansman would have been safer. Despite the accusations and speculation in the US media, it is certain that the assassination was a Chechen plan.  One of the Chechen suspects even blew himself up with a grenade to avoid capture.

One week after the assassination Putin disappeared from public view for almost two weeks. The Russian watchers that I follow believe that he was kicking butt and taking names in private.  The top people involved were too powerful to accuse publicly, but they could be threatened in private. A public murder was bad enough, but killing someone within sight of the Kremlin was beyond stupid.  That is not the way things are supposed to be done today. These days, troublesome reporters are sued for libel, framed for income tax evasion or fired, and opposition spokesmen like Nemtsov are framed for tax evasion or embezzlement and sent to a nice quiet jail to ponder their errors.  There is less fuss, less mess and you don’t have to clean up the blood afterward.

So, if you hear about Russians being afraid to speak, it’s pure fiction. If you hear that reporters have died for crossing the wrong people, damned right they have. If you hear that it is dangerous to your life to be a reporter in Russia today, you are probably wrong, but the jury is still out.

Russian Tip of the Day:

Russians have a lot more fun than we do. Probably has something to do with vodka, but who cares.  If you have a chance to go to Russia, go to YouTube, search “Russian wedding”, and see why you should never turn down an invitation to a Russian party.  Then search “Russian traffic accidents” and find out why you shouldn’t drive to the party.


Sanctions and Empty Store Shelves.

Posted in Current Events | Posted by rodger |

I have been avoiding writing new posts since the Ukrainian crisis started.  I prefer to write humor and there hasn’t been a lot funny about that conflict. In fact, if I did write the truth about it, from the Russian point of view, I would get lot of angry letters.

However someone has to post the truth about the empty story shelves.  I constantly read in the American media about the starving Russians lining up for bread in almost vacant stores. As I write this, Russia has just announced that it is pulling its military forces out of Syria and today several America news sources are saying that this is because Russia can’t even feed its own citizens and doesn’t dare spend any more money on bombs.

My relatives in Russia also read these stories and they provide more humor and cause more laughter than anything I can write.

Now things have changed over the last couple of years. The sanctions the US put on Russia are a joke, but Putin counter sanctioned the EU and barred all food imports from them. Suddenly, all the Swiss cheese was missing from the store shelves, there was no more French wine and milk went up in price.  Nestlé’s Hot Chocolate disappeared, flowers from Denmark disappeared, no apples came in from the EU, the beef supply dropped in half, and frozen pizza was in short supply.

Then the ruble dropped in half and French wine and Danish cheese became too expensive even if you could get it.

The Russian reaction was not what I expected.  Generally they were happy about it, and ridiculous as it sounds, it makes sense if you understand Russians.  A combination of different eating habits, Russian pride and Russian guilt made them like the sanctions.

We’ve already talked about how most Russian wives cook from scratch. Real Russians buy flour in 25 pound sacks, bricks of bread, potatoes by the bushel, Russian chicken and baskets of cabbage and there was never for a single day any shortage of the basics. Russia is the world’s second largest exporter of wheat and has more farmland than all of the EU countries combined.  If they couldn’t get French wine and Danish sausages, so what? Only the people in Moscow and those rich people on the other side of town cared.

When you were reading all those stories on CNN, Fortune, Forbes and VOX predicting that the starving people of Russia were about to revolt against Putin because he emptied the store shelves, they were just buying from new sources. There are 28 countries in the EU and about 4 more US allies who joined in the sanctions. That leaves only 164 countries willing and able to sell Russia anything it wanted.  CNN failed to mention that part.

Suppliers ordered beef from Brazil to replace the EU imports, expanded contracts with Turkish suppliers for additional fruits and vegetables, and major supermarket chains started funding local farmers, helping them modernize and expand.  Any shortages were short lived.

Of course, there was that problem with the ruble. But, remember that when the ruble dropped 50% against the dollar, rubles did not drop in value by half for the people who had them. If you were buying a product made in the ruble economy, the price was still close to the same. Your rent, your cab ride, bus ticket, gas, phone bill, doctor’s bill stayed the same. Only products bought from other countries went up in price.

Unfortunately, Russia was importing a lot of its food.  I know I said that they were self sufficient on the basics, but man does not live on bread and borsch alone.  What’s life without a pit of roasting beef kabobs and a cold beer on the weekends?

By the beginning of 2014, Russia was importing almost 50% of its food.  The country with the most cultivatable land in the world, was importing half of the dollar value of its groceries. Oops.

When socialism died, every factory in Russia needed modernization, but the EU already had factories that produced processed food cheap and fast. You have to remember that processed food is not just TV dinners and Sara Lee. Chickens don’t just shed their feathers and just lay down under the plastic and pigs don’t turn into hams just because they get older.

So, Russia starting importing for the same reasons we do.  It didn’t make sense to spend millions on steel tanks and automatic milking machines to produce milk worth a dollar a gallon, when less money would drill a well that produced oil worth $120 a barrel, with a lot less labor.  Stores got filled with foreign food products for the same reason that every product in Wal-Mart carries a Made in China sticker.  It was cheaper to buy than to build.

Everybody was unhappy about it. Russians are a proud people and used to living in a world where Russia made everything. Television commentators, politicians and the man down at the end of the bar frequently said “we need to diversify and build more for ourselves.”, but it was like dieting. We all intend to do it tomorrow, or next week for certain.

When the ruble dropped by half, it suddenly became necessary to do that substitution thing. The diet was on because imports became expensive.

Fortunately that rather odd Russian government got to work. As I have mentioned before, the Russian government consists of the world’s most incompetent, corrupt and confused civil service, a congress even more useless than ours, and world class leaders on the top.  Putin and his crew actually solve problems rather than borrow money and lie about how good things are.

They started the “Import Substitution” program in August of last year.  They set up a commission to manage and fund projects ranging from pharmaceutical production to domestic diesel engine production, production of chemical and petrochemical liquids, and especially agriculture.  You can judge the impartiality of the American media outlets you are reading by noting that in October of last year, Forbes and several other American publications announced that the program was a total failure.  That’s like watching a man plant an apple seed and demanding to know the next week where the apple tree is.

We can talk about that someday, but the only topic today is those empty store shelves.

Even with the drop in the ruble, there are no empty shelves.  Food substitution was already under way.  In less than 18 months, Russia increased overall agricultural production by more than 50%.  They became exporters of chicken and pork, rather than importers.  In addition to providing the local markets, Russian agricultural exports grew from $15 billion to $20 billion.  Beef and milk production has increased and orchards are sprouting on what was fallow farm land.

The upshot is that nothing has changed much for most Russians.  Food prices are up about 10%, but there is plenty of food, and you can still buy a Snickers bar and a Coke because a lot of brands we have in America are now also produced domestically in Russia.  Things are far from perfect. It will take years to ramp up milk production and Russia will never grow its own citrus, but despite what you have read, starving Russians are not ready to rebel to get a crust of bread.








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