No, today’s post isn’t about yesterday’s massive fire at the Ministry of Defense in Moscow. Today’s post is about the so-called “Panama Papers,” a massive investigative journalism project on money laundering and offshore accounts whose findings were initially released yesterday evening, while additional material is planned to be released gradually over the next couple weeks. This was the upcoming “information attack” that had Russian officials so hot and bothered last week, specifically, the part of the initial release that deals with Putin’s connection to a secret offshore account holding $2 billion dollars. Yes, those dollars, the ones that pro-Kremlin pundits keep telling us are about to be worthless any day now.
Of course Putin was by no means the only politician implicated in the investigation. Ukrainian businessman-turned-president Petro Poroshenko was also busted (take a guess which president’s scandal got reported in the Russian media, just for fun). Iceland, where people apparently give a shit about whether or not their leaders are thieves, may see a call for snap elections after the leak’s revelations about the prime minister’s offshore accounts. Hopefully the PM will only be replaced and not punished via the “Blood Eagle.” All in all it’s been a major bombshell. I mean who could have imagined that in a system that massively favors the wealthy, those individuals would take advantage of that fact to hoard money and avoid paying taxes like everyone else? In any case, the employees of the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca lawfirm at the center of the story are likely to have a lot of long chats with various investigators, which will of course no doubt be held in comfortable conference rooms served with tea, coffee, and bottled water. Nobody will be slammed to the pavement or into a car windshield, as one does with a youth suspected of stealing a bag of chips or a cell phone. Seriously, how did this system manage to fail us, so terribly, in this unprecedented and totally isolated instance?!
Getting back to Moscow, the Russian state media’s predictable response has been to ignore the story, which is setting off alarm bells around the rest of the world. Having spent nearly a week preemptively denying the story as more Western propaganda concocted solely to smear the Glorious Leader, the Russian state media and Kremlin officials seem to show no interest in even attempting to debunk the patently absurd claims that the Glorious Leader might have corrupt dealings. Now as for all those other politicians caught by the leak, especially Poroshenko, well obviously they’re actually guilty.
The Panama Papers are said to be one of the biggest leaks in history, and as they only started to be published yesterday evening I’m still reading up on them. I cannot offer much in the way of analysis at this point, but when it comes to the Kremlin’s denial and their overall narrative on topics like these, there’s a lesson to be learned.
Kremlin apologists have a tricky way of responding to allegations of corruption. One of the most common arguments is what is commonly known as “good tsar, bad boyars.” This means that corruption is pinned on faceless, usually nameless bureaucrats, but Putin is a hero who must not be questioned. It is often said that he is unaware of corruption at lower levels, and it is implied that he cannot do anything about this. While it is true that there’s a lot of low-level corruption all the way down to the street level and Putin cannot possibly know any details about this, he must at least be aware that it exists. If not, he is totally and utterly incompetent and cannot be called a leader by any stretch of the imagination. And if he is aware but powerless to do something about that corruption, he is still incompetent. If he is aware and unwilling to do anything about it, he is even worse; he’s malevolent in words of Epicurus.
Of course at times government apologists will try to deny massive corruption, or deny that it is any worse than in the rest of the world, including leading industrial economies. Here’s where we get to the heart of the matter. If corruption in Russia is not considerably quantitatively and qualitatively different than that in other leading industrialized nations, specifically liberal democracies, then why don’t those countries resemble Russia more? Is say, Canada, just as much a kleptocratic dictatorship as Putin’s Russia? Well let’s see…Their leaders change after contested democratic elections wherein opponents are not labeled “national traitors,” harassed physically and via the courts,and blacked out of the media. As far as I know they are not known for having a string of massive boondoggle projects, some of which haven’t achieved anything yet whose contractors, friends of the prime minister, still manage to grow massively rich off the deals. I highly doubt all of Canada’s richest individuals happen to be close friends of the current or former prime minister. I bet I could find one or two who are quite opposed to the ruling political party’s policies.
Sure, maybe the narrative about Putin’s Russia being a kleptocracy is nothing but a Western invention, but you know, doesn’t it really kind of look like what you’d expect a corruption-ridden kleptocracy to look like? The richest and most successful people just happen to be close friends of the president. They always get massive state contracts. They’re never investigated by the state. If someone lower down on the totem pole does something so egregious as to warrant some kind of prosecution, they are given a slap on the wrist, whereas people who would otherwise be nobodies face stiff sentences for the most wildly-concocted charges. Politicians and their assistants display wealth far beyond that which their official salaries should be able to afford, and their kids live and play in Paris, London, or Brooklyn. Meanwhile roads are crumbling. Pensions are frozen. Thousands go without pay for weeks, sometimes months. Clinics, hospitals, and orphanages sometimes look like scenes from a third world country. Yet the country is so rich with resources, and we know it made a killing off of oil and gas back in the mid-2000’s. It really looks like a lot of that money went into something other than education, healthcare, and infrastructure.
Of course arguments like these won’t stop the most ardent Kremlin supporters. Point all of that out and they’ll just tell you that it was worse in the 90’s, or they’ll just choose some country with bigger problems and proclaim it to be the standard by which to measure nations. But they can only do that for so long. The latter argument is worthless and the former will be worthless as more standard of living indicators in Russia continue to sink back toward their 1990’s levels. In any case, I still can’t help reacting the same way whenever I hear these defenses. If you’re so right, if you know so much more, why isn’t Russia leading the world? Why isn’t it anywhere close to doing so? Why has Russia been performing far below its obvious potential? These are the questions we must ask, and while the simple answer isn’t necessarily Putin, as in Putin the man, it does have everything to do with the Putinist system.
UPDATE: Putin’s press secretary and over-half-million-dollar-watch-owner-whose daughter-prefers-living-in-Paris Dmitry Peskov has now claimed that the Panama Papers investigation was aimed directly at Russia, and specifically at Putin personally, even though it clearly wasn’t. Acting a little guilty there, Dmitry! Maybe you can use your watch’s time travel feature to go back a few minutes into the past and stop yourself from making those idiotic claims. Please tell me it has time travel. For $620,000 it had better have time travel capability!