Empire Files: Post-Soviet Russia, Made in the U.S.A.
Abby Martin interviews Mark Ames, an American journalist who spent a decade reporting from Russia and witnessed the country’s transformation from an American “colony” to it’s “number one threat.”
ABBY MARTIN: Anti-Russian hysteria is at a new peak, with the political establishment, and corporate media, jointly accusing Russia of interfering in the recent U.S. election. While some politicians have gone so far as to treat the alleged hack as an act of war, this fear mongering doesn’t engage with the actual history of U.S.-Russia relations.
Beyond just influencing elections in Russia, the U.S., along with the Western capitalist institutions, set the stage for the entire political system they now condemn. To learn more about U.S. interference in Russia’s political and economic affairs, I spoke with American journalist Mark Ames, who reported for nearly a decade in Boris Yeltsin’s Moscow.
Ames co-founded The eXile, in 1998, an English-language newspaper critical of the Russian state. Putin’s government shut it down in 2008. Ames remains a prominent author, journalist and eminent voice on Russian politics.
You said that you don’t necessarily rule out Russia’s role in the hack of Podesta and the DNC, but every time the establishment presents evidence, it feels like we’re just being conned.
MARK AMES: It’s certainly plausible. Russia has motive, which is everything we’ve done to that country since the late 1980s, which is… I mean, meddling in their democracy was putting it very mildly. We basically restructured their entire political economy, and then… and left it in a complete shambles. And then we’ve meddled in other ways since then –- funding opposition groups, and so on and so forth.
So, they certainly have the motive. There’s no ideological reason. Putin and the Kremlin, they’re not Quakers. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t. They have the means. The reasons they wouldn’t do it would be for practical reasons, right? Practically, it would create these kind of problems if they got caught, and so on and so forth.
What has really been strange to me, has been the awful reporting, and the atrocious intelligence reports, which have been… I don’t know. I feel like… well, you can’t really describe it as anything but a sort of a disinformation campaign on us, on the domestic public.
The other thing is that Obama and the Democrats and the centrist Republicans, who are pushing this story, they also have motive, which is to indemnify themselves from the fact that they have been completely rejected by the public. They lost the elections. And they have the means, which is friends in the CIA, and all these intelligence agencies, to create these reports, as we’re seeing.
It’s just… it’s a really dark joke, the whole thing, so far.
ABBY MARTIN: But of course the most absurd point of this whole thing is how much the U.S. has interfered in every country’s election and government! In the last century, namely, as you mentioned, and I want you to go more into this, interference in the 1996, what you call Stone election, where Yeltsin took power. Talk about what the U.S. did in that election.
MARK AMES: Well, yeah, I actually interviewed… you know, I did the reporting on this. I interviewed, myself and Alex Zaitchik, the head of the OSCE mission — which is the election observer mission, which is basically a Western European-led body — he was a British MP, and he straight up said the election was stolen. It was fraudulent, and the OSCE did everything to quash my report, and so it was officially known as free and fair.
There’s fraud in every single Russian election. I mean, fairly significant fraud by our standards, not hugely significant, let’s say, by, you know, some hardcore dictatorial standards. But certainly 3, 4, 5 percent is often stolen, and the template was really set in the 1996 elections that got Boris Yeltsin from about 3% rating. I mean, Boris Yeltsin, in his five years in office, dragged Russia into a war in which about 100,000 people were killed, and they lost.
And the average life expectancy of a Russian male plummeted from 68 years to 56 years. It had a death to birth ratio almost… perhaps never seen in the 20th century. Even during wartimes. People were just dying like flies, you know? Everywhere. No state support, just pure banditry, starting with Yeltsin at the top, all the way down.
Unlike Putin, say what you will about him, but I think even his enemies agree, he is very popular. They might blame it on the propaganda, but he is popular. His ratings are still in the 80th percentile range, and he always has been popular. With Yeltsin, you had to perform a miracle, where this guy was absolutely hated, and is still the most… one of the probably, two or three most-hated Russians, you know, in modern history for what he did to the country.
So, it was a tough job. And Clinton was also running for re-election that year, and Clinton did not want to know –- this is 1996 –- Clinton did not want to be known as the President who lost Russia, if Yeltsin’s Communist opponent won.
Among other things, there were American advisors, of course advising him, but the Treasury Department, we found out about it when we were reporting on this, that the Treasury Department was actually drafting decrees on the creation of capital markets, on the structure -– the legal structure –- of the… the structure of the economy, really.
1996 also was the year that we introduced the new 100-dollar bill for the first time. And Yeltsin’s two top campaign managers were caught by police during the campaign, about a month or two before the election, carrying giant boxes –- Xerox boxes –- full of new 100-dollar bill notes, when we were flying them in, and the Russian media was reporting at the time. I mean, the top journalists, you know, liberal journalists, were reporting that… I mean, we know that stacks and stacks of 100-dollar bills would be flown in, brought to the U.S. Embassy, and then presumably from there to the Central Bank, but this is during the election, you know?
Anyway, the Russians believe –- and that’s what matters the most –- even the liberal Russians –- that we financed covertly in that way, we financed very overtly by approving more World Bank and IMF loans for Russia than any country in history at that time, we bankrolled the whole thing. And then in the end, they still had to steal the election.
So, like in Chechnya, where, again, between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed there, villages which had been wiped out voted 90… or, voted actually probably 150% for Yeltsin, let’s say, you know? This is… it is in Chechnya, and no one wanted to hear it -– no one reported it –- there was some election theft in 1999-2000 when Putin won, but Putin, again, was Yeltsin’s appointed successor. The people he was running against were more overtly nationalist, more overtly anti-Western.
And then when Putin started… basically, the first big sin that Putin committed was, he didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. And suddenly that’s when we started to notice election fraud is a problem there.
ABBY MARTIN: Before 1996, there was 1993, where you mentioned that the New York Times, as well as Bill Clinton, actually helped subvert the first democratically elected Parliament.
MARK AMES: Yeah. Yeltsin was… there were basically two rival bodies that were both elected democratically in Soviet times. This is Yeltsin in the Executive Branch, and then the Supreme Soviet, which is the parliament, which was very powerful, up until October 1993.
Yeltsin had his idea of how they wanted to do privatization, which was like shock therapy, mass privatization. Yeltsin’s people were directly funded by, trained by, advised by U.S. aid and by Harvard. Harvard basically ran Russia’s privatization program. And then it turned out that the top Harvard people, Andrei Shleifer and Jonathan Hay, who ran the whole, like, setting up their capital market, setting up their privatization programs.
Both of them wound up eventually being prosecuted by the Department of Justice for insider dealing. Like, they would set up a, you know, rules for a mutual fund market, and then they’d give no-bid tenders to their wives to start up a fund, that would get all this Russian State mon… I mean, they did all this kind of insider dealing, that, again, all this stuff… you know, we’ve forgotten, because it didn’t hurt us. But none of these people have forgotten that are in power in Russia, what we did.
So, Yeltsin, and the Young Reformers, as they were called, that were backed by Americans, had their ideas. Supreme Soviet had its ideas, which were more… I would say, probably more egalitarian, they all kind of agreed that they need to bring in some market forces and some privatization, and break up the state monopolies, but they weren’t sure how.
Yeltsin then decided that he didn’t want to fight it out with the parliament anymore, so he just unilaterally and illegally, abolished the parliament, and eventually sent in tanks and helicopters and, you know, between 500 and 1,000 people were killed. We completely backed it up. The New York Times editorials, Clinton openly backed him up, immediately sent him $10 billion more via IMF aid when they did this.
And I was… that was right when I moved to Russia. I moved about a week –- I’m sorry –- a month before the… not even a month, a couple of weeks before, into the same district, I mean, bullets flying everywhere, and it was pretty crazy. I watched tanks fire into the Parliament building, and you could see the huge explosion go out, and the Americans cheered it on. And in fact, even a couple of Americans were killed watching that. They were shooting everybody.
And after Yeltsin succeeded in that, his forces succeeded in subduing the parliament. Again, we backed him up, and then he had an election a couple of months later. They created a new Constitution, and this is also really important -– they created a new Constitution, which vested really, all power in the Presidency. Which is what allowed for Putin to become as powerful as he is today.
Again, we backed that up, and U.S. aid paid PR agencies like Burson-Marsteller to help promote these referendums. A referendum on that, the referendums on the privatization vouchers, we were behind everything. It was essentially a colony. There’s no other way to put it. It was like a colony of a defeated power, and we screwed it up hugely.
ABBY MARTIN: Let’s talk more about the economic structure. You lived under Yeltsin for years, right after the fall of the Soviet Union. You described these years as a neo-liberal fire sale, where Russia was essentially colonized by foreign capital. Talk specifically about what that means.
MARK AMES: In one specific way, you had all these very valuable assets, as we now know, state oil companies, some of the largest in the world. I mean, Russia has the number one, or two-largest oil reserves in the world. The third of the world’s natural gas, 70% of the world’s palladium, I think, a third of the world’s nickel, all this stuff.
And all of these industries were auctioned off in rigged auctions, which were advised by, and backed by, the U.S. Treasury Department. So, this is one way… you know, all of these state enterprises, which employed a lot of people, were sold to a handful of oligarchs at, you know, sometimes they didn’t really even pay for them. The way they paid for them was, these oligarchs owned banks, which became treasure… which became Finance Minister or Treasury vehicles. So, if you needed to pay teachers and doctors, the Treasury didn’t have a way of disseminating it, so it’d disseminate through an oligarch’s bank network.
The oligarchs would take the money and hold up paying the teachers –- I mean, there were teachers, workers, who weren’t paid for two, three years at a time. While the oligarch’s took the money, spun it around, and our advice always while this was happening was, Russian needs to tighten its belt more, Russia needs to tighten its belt more. It can’t pay its teachers because it needs to tighten its belt more.
Well, in fact, we were creating a class of international capitalists, in the belief that if we could restructure the economy along the kind of oligarchical lines, we’d bring them into our system, they would be subordinate to us. And their natural resources would become, basically an appendage of the Western economy.
That was the hope. And it did kind of go that way for a while. But it was devastating. It was absolutely devastating. And, you know, we may want to roll our eyes at the ’90s, because, again, we didn’t suffer then, you know? But Russians suffered enormously then. And in their minds… Honestly, I’m surprised they’re not more angry with us about that. They seem almost more angry with us over… like, I didn’t see the anger really explode until we bombed Kosovo, in 1999. Then suddenly it… all these Russians kind of turned against us. And it all kind of started to make sense to them, you know?
But, you know, before then, look, you had the most equal society where the privileged people had a somewhat nicer dacha, or the really privileged ones maybe had a car, or the super-super privileged maybe even had a car and a driver. But no one was a billionaire, and there certainly weren’t millions and millions of people starving in the streets, or half-starving in the streets.
So, you went from the world’s most equal society, to the world’s most unequal society, in a very short period of time. It’s incredibly traumatic, and Putin was brought in -– when he first appeared, it was like this great relief, I think, for a lot of Russians, because here was a guy who, a), didn’t drink. He seemed serious, and he seemed like somebody who’s, kind of more seriously interested in not doing any more experiments on the country, like the Russians kept saying, like, we don’t want to be experimented on anymore, you know? And the Americans’ attitude was, “Okay, we experimented on you, and you died on the operating table. Clearly it’s your fault. We need a better patient than you.”
Certainly by the end of the 1990s, democracy was a bad word in Russia. It’s just equated with stealing from everybody, stealing everything…
ABBY MARTIN: Paint the picture for us at the end of the ’90s. What did life look like there?
MARK AMES: Yeah. At the end of the ’90s, I mean, look, you had the Americans and the international credit institutions, like the World Bank and IMF, running everything. All the newspapers, all the Western media constantly cheering on Russia, it’s doing great, it’s doing great. It’s going to do better. It’s going to overcome all of its problems.
And it was clearly not… the Russian press kind of knew it wasn’t, and then at the end of 1998, the entire house of cards collapsed. It was at the time, the greatest financial collapse… financial markets collapse, in history. The stock market fell 95%, 98%, something like that. The ruble completely collapsed. Nobody could even get money anymore. There was talk about food shortages. I think, there was a time in ’98, ’99 when something like, one-third of the country lived on subsistence farming. Now, this is a northern county where there’s not much farmland.
What it means is, in their dachas, they grew food and they needed it to supplement whatever diets they had to live. This was the end result of 10 years of us influencing, guiding, advising, manipulating the Russian political economy. So, they were looking for something else.
And then, as I said, in 1999 when we sort of unilaterally went ahead to bomb Kosovo, and Yugoslavia, that was when Russians really… that was when a lot of them who were, like, I guess you would call the kind of emerging, pro-Western middleclass types, even sort of said, “Wow, maybe those cranky old communists and nationalists were actually right about you guys all along. We’re next, aren’t we?” You know? They got very freaked out by that.
It was coming out that IMF money was going directly into secret bank accounts, and then being kicked back to even… Michel Camdessus, who was the head of the IMF, was implicated in getting kickbacks of money he approved to Yeltsin. I mean, it was the craziest… like, everything was stolen. Everything was stolen.
ABBY MARTIN: I wanted to briefly talk about why Yeltsin chose Putin, and what did he do to protect the oligarchy?
MARK AMES: Yeah. Yeltsin was desperate. He was sick. He’d been pretty sick since probably ’95, ’96. He was surrounded by what they called the, Yeltsin Family Clan, which were a lot of oligarchs, and even his own family members, actually. And they were all worried that should Yeltsin die, somebody that they can’t rely on may come and take power and prosecute them. So, this is the atmosphere that Yeltsin was in in 1999. There was also going to be an election in ’99, and they were starting to worry that if they were to lose the election, or they didn’t have a strong successor, or even prime minister to Yeltsin, that they were all going to go down.
And it was a legitimate worry. The Mayor of Moscow was turned against them. Parts of the deep state were turning against Yeltsin. And Yeltsin had named Vladimir Putin as his head of the FSB, the intelligence agency, in late ’98, I think it was, middle of 1998. And he was proving very trustworthy and loyal.
As head of the FSB, he was, Putin was starting to do what he could to protect Yeltsin, and when the General Prosecutor started opening up cases against Yeltsin Family Clan members for theft of state property, Putin arranged filming the General Prosecutor –- who would be like our Attorney General –- having sex with two prostitutes. Put it on television. Yeltsin saw that and said, “This is my man, and he’s going to protect me.”
ABBY MARTIN: He’s my boy.
MARK AMES: Yeah.
ABBY MARTIN: During the Yeltsin era, there were countless assassinations of journalists, of political dissidents, right? This was going on in conjunction with this horrific time of inequality and joblessness, and everything like that. Why didn’t the U.S. care about press freedoms in Russia then, like it does now?
MARK AMES: Again, because it was a vassal state. It wasn’t a threat. It was a vassal state, and what we really cared about was, to be honest, it was keeping Russia as weak as possible, and getting access to the resources, and the enormous resources. Not just in Russia, but in the Caspian Sea countries, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan. We wanted those resources, so we give them a free pass as long as we could get ahold of the loot there.
But, no, it’s a good point. Look, when I got there… shortly after I got there, one of the most popular young Russian journalists, Dima Kholodov –- this is 1994 –- he was investigating Yeltsin’s really powerful Defence Minister for one of the big Russian dailies, Moscow Komsomolets, and his source, and he was publishing some pretty sensational stuff about really appalling corruption that was going on, that the Defence Minister was responsible for –- Yeltsin knew about it.
And so, they set him up, and they said, you know, there’s a briefcase full of these sensational documents and you’re going to be an even bigger star. They had a very, very vibrant, open, wild press at this time in Russia. Way freer than ours, in terms of the range, and the aggressiveness of the media towards power.
Kholodov got the briefcase, opened it up, and it killed him. Blew him up. Everybody in the media called out Yeltsin, how could you not fire your Defence Minister? Everybody knows this is what happened. But, again, you know, this is a question of heating rods. Like, we kept saying, well, if we can weaken Yeltsin in any way, the Communists could come to power. You know? So we gotta keep our criticism quiet. And we did this over and over and over, journalist after journalist, opposition figure after opposition figure, people being killed left and right. We just said, no, to talk about it is to destabilize Yeltsin, to destabilize Yeltsin means bringing back the Communists, and so we have to keep our mouths shut.
By the time I started The eXile in 1997, with Matt Taibbi, the Russian media had been… it went through its first consolidation. Basically, it was all pretty free before, and very wild and unruly. During the election that was stolen by Yeltsin in 1996, the American advisors -– if you go back through their notes –- they advised Yeltsin to consolidate all the television media under his own wing, so that it became one state media, including what people thought was the independent media, and to hand out favors to these people, and advised them to lie.
So, they created this reality during the 1996 campaign that if the Communists win -– it was propaganda non-stop on television, it would show people hanging from lampposts and, you know, people in Gulags, and… and then after Yeltsin won, the complete oligarchization of Russia meant that the entire media after that was, as one of the favors, handed all the press.
So, this oligarch had this newspaper, this television network and this, whatever. And then they… so they all… journalists at that point suddenly worked for oligarchs. And again, remember, this was Russia at this time was the focus of the empire. It was our number one colony, and it was the project, you know, of the century for the American “empire”.
ABBY MARTIN: Right. It’s like the Red Scare, except there are no Reds, right? Russia is capitalist. It’s an oligarchy. We collaborated on that front. What is the threat today, that Russia poses to the U.S. empire, that is causing this insane hysteria and aggression?
MARK AMES: We got very used –- after the end of the Cold War –- to being able to do whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted. And the only thing holding us back was our own, you know, amazing sense of justice, or whatever, but there was no countervailing power. And like what we’ve seen in Syria, where Russia went in and had actually a much more strategically coherent objective, which was back the government. Back the government and their forces, and they succeeded. And that’s just… that alone is very deeply threatening to people who are used to having their own way.
It’s a threat to, you know, full spectrum dominance. So, I guess it’s a threat on that level…
ABBY MARTIN: Mark, you have many contacts still on the ground in Russia. What is their reaction to this?
MARK AMES: Huh. Yeah. I’m noticing, not only my contacts, but regular people, and Russian opposition to Putin people, they’re all very weirded out by this. They… at first I kind of… I think they were sort of amused, and this has gone on and on, and they’re realizing, like, we’re starting to expel and we’re not releasing any intelligence and there’s clearly so much BS around this whole Russia scare.
They’re going more silent now. They’re genuinely weirded out. They may be… there was schadenfreude for a while. But I think the schadenfreude is kind of turning into a dread of, like, what does this really mean? How crazy are we, and how far are we going to go?
Trump’s coming to power, I think people have a far too rosy, hopeful view of how much things might change under him. I would imagine they’re not going to be as hostile for… relations won’t be as hostile for at least six months or something, but God knows after that.
ABBY MARTIN: Let’s talk about Trump, because everyone paints Trump as best friends with Putin, right? But given Trump’s fragile ego, and the people he’s surrounding himself with, that all want war with Iran, how quickly could this change?
MARK AMES: Yeah. No, it could change easily, and I would like to add, too, that I think if you look at it, Trump is… Trump… I’m sure he probably does see… like some things about Putin. He’s a mensch, or whatever. Tough guy. But I think Trump is also –- let’s not assume he’s a complete loony idiot. Let’s assume that he actually is fairly smart and won the presidency.
And he knew what he was going by baiting the Hillary Democrats, and baiting journalists, by planing around with how much of a friend he might have been with Putin, because what did that do during the election? It got everybody chasing Kremlin phantoms into a cul-de-sac, when this guy has more skeletons in his closet than anybody in history. I mean, he’s a mobster. You know? He’s the big… like, everything that Trump has on his record, and everybody decided let’s run against Putin.
So, I think, again, the danger is really on our side, and I can easily imagine a lot of dangers. Like, for example, not just if Putin does something that crosses Trump, and crosses Trump’s ego, but more like, Trump has a kind of a, populist instincts. And his instincts also go towards what’s going to make him more powerful, and what’s going to make him popular? And if he realizes working in that D.C. bubble, that actually being the guy who used to be… so imagine the credibility, like, in the PR world: “I was the guy who was most friendly with him, and he still turned against me.”
Like, imagine what a mouthpiece he could be for a new Cold War. It’s very easy to imagine things getting hostile again between the Trump administration, and the Kremlin, and heating up in crazy ways that, you know, we probably don’t want to think about.