The Trump administration has admitted a new report about Russian oligarchs is based on a Forbes list. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, says the report could ultimately help Putin force wealthy Russians to bring their overseas money back home. Cohen also discusses Russia’s upcoming election
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Thousands of people have rallied across Russia in protest of upcoming presidential elections. The Russian electoral commission has barred opposition politician Alexei Navalny from running over a conviction on fraud and corruption charges, which Navalny says is politically motivated. Navalny was among several hundred people detained during Sunday’s protest.
They came as the US government releases a new report targeting a list of wealthy Russians as potential targets for sanctions. Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the report as an effort to meddle in the Russian election.
Continued tensions between the US and Russia are part of what my next guest calls the “New Cold War.” Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at NYU and Princeton University. His books include, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. Professor Cohen, welcome.
STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: We have elections coming up in just over a month in Russia. Vladimir Putin is expected to win. But these protests that we saw this weekend and the arrest of Navalny, can you talk about their significance?
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s good, actually, that you want to talk a bit about internal Russian politics but that’s kind of been lost in Russiagate and, really, in the new Cold War because from reading the American media, you would think that Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin, and that’s it. One of our geniuses, I won’t name him because he edits a very important magazine, said, “All of Russian politics is in Putin’s head.”
Oddly enough, that was said back in Soviet times when this theory of totalitarianism prevailed, the notion that all politics in the Soviet Union was controlled by the leader, and individual leader. Incidentally, that theory of totalitarianism has returned. It was widely discredited. It has not relevance to Russia today, but a book that propounds it here in the United States just won the National Book Award. So, that’s part of what I kind of have in mind when I think about the degradation of American discourse, certainly about Russia. So, it’s good that you ask.
Navalny is a familiar figure in Russian history. Russians used to admiringly call such people who tilted at windmills, “holy fools” with admiration but he’s very important. He’s taken on the corruption in a very big way. He’s essentially accused the entire Putin regime and everybody associated it with being corrupt, with robbing Russia, depriving its people. And though excluded from the regular media, broadcast and print media, he has exploited social media very, very effectively. He has a special appeal to young people. By young people, even people who are still in high school. And he has the capacity to bring the people into the streets.
Let me add to that that he did something quite remarkable. Two or three years ago, he ran legally, legitimately for the mayor of Moscow, Russia’s most important and powerful city, against a fairly popular mayor who’s done a pretty good job, I think. And Navalny got about 28% simply by stuffing mailboxes and making phone calls, excuse me, running a rather conventional campaign. But he’s not being permitted on the presidential ballot on the grounds, it may not be fair, but he has a felony conviction against him, a white collar crime. So, he’s off. And he’s telling his people to boycott the election.
So, three things to be said about that. He called people out last Sunday, and it was not a good turnout. I mean, in a country where under Gorbachev we saw 600,000 people in the streets of Moscow, I was there, I didn’t count them all, but everybody agreed there were 600,000. And where 50,000 has become a pretty good norm for recent protests, there appear to have been under 1,000 in Moscow and less than that at the other dozen or so, score or so cities where Navalny’s people came out last Sunday. And typically, the police arrest them because they don’t have a permit, including Navalny. They hold them for three or four hours, and they release them. And then the West says “massive protests,” but it was a disappointing from Navalny’s point of view what happened last week.
Personally, I would like to see Navalny on the ballot running against Putin for the presidency to see how many people would actually vote for him. But here’s the important thing, Aaron, or one of the important things. In the current polls, which are fairly reliable, in which his name is entered, they put his name in even though he can’t run, Navalny’s getting two or three percent. This by no means makes him what our newspapers call him everyday, “the leading challenger to Putin.” There are several people who are getting closer to 10%. So, he’s very low down in the polls but that doesn’t diminish his importance. And this notion that Russians should boycott the election has unleashed a fiery debate among the opposition itself as to whether or not this is a good idea. Most think it’s not a good idea.
AARON MATÉ: Why is that?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, now we go to the core of the issue. I ask myself, my own professor, the greatest Russianist of his generation, Robert C. Tucker, always thought historically and he used to say, “What time is it historically in Russia?” Russia has experienced some, been struggling for more democracy in our lifetime since the late 1980s. And it obviously does not have a democratic system today. But the question is, how much democracy is in Russia today? There is some. And I ask myself, I do pluses and minuses on a sheet kind of as a scholar, a historian, a political scientist.
Most political scientists who are not hysterical say that the Russian political system under Putin is a soft authoritarian system but exactly what that means isn’t clear. But what it means is it’s a system capable of behaving in an authoritarian way because of the power that Putin has and the weakness of the political parties in parliament and to a certain extent the media, but nonetheless a system with a lot of things that you and I would consider to be democratic.
For example, it’s not known in this country, but the print media, not television, but the print media is fairly free. There’s a lot of denunciation of Putin that’s printed every day in Russia. There are political parties, even in-system ones, the Communist Party, a nationalist party, that have large constituencies across Russia and that challenge Putin’s party. He doesn’t have a party but the Kremlin party, in regional and local elections and win. I mean, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the hometown of Yeltsin, who remains an idol for the Russian liberals, is an outspoken Putin opponent. A small social-democratic liberal party controls about 100 seats in local councils in Moscow. They won them the last election.
So, the argument among oppositionists and Russians, and it’s their business not ours, Aaron, is that, would a boycott be good for evolutionary democratization of Russia? Or should we take advantage of the electoral process that exist, utilize it, expand it, and try to make the system more democratic? That’s the debate.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you, since you mentioned oligarchs. So, here it’s taken for granted that if you’re an oligarch in Russia, then you’re automatically on Putin’s side because Putin controls everything. You’re painting a different picture, and let me ask you about one in particular. We hear often about Oleg Deripaska. He’s said to be very close to Putin and he had ties to Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. And this connection is often cited to advance the narrative that Trump and Putin were ultimately in cahoots. In the case of Deripaska, is it even fair to say that he is close to Putin?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, you’ve chosen the one guy, I would’ve given you much more, first of all, this list of oligarchs that’s been compiled somewhere in the Trump administration because Congress told Trump he had to do it is simply idiotic. I mean, you know what they did, I assume. They simply copied Forbes’ list of the 100 most rich people in Russia, and they defined that as having at least 1 billion dollars. So, if you were short 1 billion dollars, and by the way, that all depends on what the market’s worth on a given day when you compile the list. But if you’re short 100 dollars in 1 billion, you’re not an oligarch. You didn’t get left on the list.
The list they produced, and this is really important to the extent that we’re not going to treat this as a kind of sick joke, the oligarchs that they list, and they also listed all the members of Putin’s government and of Medvedev’s government, the prime minister, and Medvedev himself. Remember, Medvedev was the darling of Obama. He was the guy who was then-president of Russia that Obama was going to do a reset with and who Michael McFaul, Obama’s advisor, told him that if he’s told Obama that we got to keep Medvedev in office because he’s the future of Russian democracy. Well, he’s now on the hate oligarch list as of today.
But on this list of oligarchs, and I mean, it is completely lacking any nuance or discrimination, two of the most pro-American oligarchs are on the list, and one will ring familiar to you if you’re a basketball fan. Prokhorov, who owns the New York Nets and the Barclay arena in Brooklyn, is on the list.
AARON MATÉ: Right, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yes, and the Barclay arena, he bought that, recently. It’s said to be worth about 2 billion dollars. Now, here the irony of history and the stupidity of Washington. This list is a great advantage to Putin. Does that surprise you, Aaron? Let me tell you why. For three, four years, Putin has been trying to get the oligarchs, that is guys with a billion bucks or more, who have parked their money abroad in sports teams, real estate, everything abroad to repatriate their capital to Russia because Russia needs it, and he wants them paying taxes on it. He’s offered them an amnesty, a tax amnesty if they bring it home. He has had almost no success.
This oligarch’s list has scared these guys into thinking that the next step by Washington will try to be to freeze their assets abroad. So, I think in the next three or four weeks, Mr. Putin’s program, his appeal for the repatriation of Russian capital, is going to become very successful. Look at poor Prokhorov. He’s sitting on two billion bucks or so in Brooklyn, and anybody who wants to buy the team knows now they could get a sharp discount because Prokhorov doesn’t have much waiting time left.
AARON MATÉ: Well, I think we could agree then that if that happens, that this could be one of the few positive developments to arise from Russiagate. This forcing the Trump administration to go after Russia in all ways including copying the Forbes’ list of wealthy Russians, forces them to be scared enough to move their money back home and reinvest it in their country.
STEPHEN COHEN: So, you can see how from Putin’s point of view, because Russia needs capital invested at home, by the way, it’s analogous to the theme that Trump raised that too many big American multinational firms were keeping their money abroad. And he boasts now that, I don’t know, Apple and other companies are coming home. I don’t follow it very closely. But this is a problem of globalization, right? Parking wealth abroad.
But there are other aspects to this. This whole idea that Americans who have contact with these oligarchs, because that’s the point of the list, we’re looking for collusion contacts with these Russian oligarchs, right? That would include many score of big American companies that have been doing business in Russia for many years and very successfully. Russia is a kind of oligarchical economy, as is ours. I mean, you want to compile a list of American oligarchs and ask about their relationship with American presidents, it’d be a bigger list probably.
But there are many important, prominent American corporations that you and I traffic with who have been operating in Russia’s oligarchical economy for more than 20 years. Procter & Gamble is enormously successful Russia. You got to a supermarket under a Russian name, all of Procter & Gamble’s most famous products, dish soap, detergent, all that, is there. Starbucks is there. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Subway for God’s sake. I mean, all of the fast food places are all over Russia. Ford was running several plants there. I think they shut all but one down, but automobile manufacturers. American hotel chains own hotels and operate them in Moscow and other Russian cities.
We told Russia to globalize in the 1990s. They did. So, their money came here, our money went there. And now it turns out, pay attention, this is a crime. This is where we’re at now. This is a crime. Now, if you’re an anti-capitalist, Aaron, you may think this is a good thing because Washington has officially recognized that capitalism is a crime. That had not been Washington’s position until they went crazy with Russiagate but they’re getting there.
AARON MATÉ: Well, but unfortunately, if you’re an anti-capitalist, they’re only applying that awareness to literally one country.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, but stop and think. This is interesting. The guys who run these big American corporations and who are making millions of dollars a year in the Russian market are beginning to wonder where this is going to end. I mean, they’re also in China. They’re also in some EU countries, European Union countries that we are now declaring to be renegade countries, right? Because the governments have moved rightward, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic.
You do know, by the way, and if I was running for office anywhere in the United States, I would announce that Putin’s going to try to defeat me so when I lose I would have an excuse. But you know that when Zeman was, he’s not pro-Russian, but he’s not anti-Russian, re-won the Czech presidency last year, the story immediately became Putin gave it to him. There are no elections in the world that Putin cannot, I don’t know where Putin gets the time to study all these national and local elections in so many countries. I mean, I just don’t know how he does it. Somebody out in Texas who lost a race last time around said it was because of Putin.
AARON MATÉ: Professor Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at NYU and Princeton University. His books include Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. Professor Cohen, thank you.
STEPHEN COHEN: And Aaron, thanks to you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.