Rules of the game

Investigative journalists are being picked off one by one in Russia. Their "crime", says Roman Shlei

European and American perceptions of Russian life are nothing if not naive. My view is reaffirmed every time I speak to western journalists, and hear the way they interpret the dangers their Russian colleagues face and the limitations imposed on free speech in Russia. It is naivety in the positive sense of the word: a real failure to grasp why Russian state officials do not resign after press revelations have directly implicated them in criminal cases; why the public does not protest when local elections are cancelled; why assassinations of journalists do not bring thousands out on to the streets or provoke questions of the authorities. In Europe, any one of these events would create a level of indignation capable of bringing down a government. In Russia, it passes unnoticed. So what is the point of Russian journalism, if there is virtually no response to revelations either from the public or the state?

For more than ten years I have worked for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper viewed in Russia as an opposition publication. Currently, I am in charge of the investigations section. The paper appears twice a week and has a print run of 500,000 copies, pretty much average for Russia. It focuses on misappropriation of power and corruption. It also reports on human rights abuses and the repression of opposition. Many western journalists discovered Novaya Gazeta through Anna Politkovskaya. One of her chief areas of interest was the human rights situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. She was highly critical of the authorities, both federal and local, for their policies in these regions. In 2006, she was assassinated in the lift of her apartment block.

For our editorial team, this loss was by no means the first. In 1994, our special correspondent Svetlana Orliuk travelled to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to look into the detention of an officer held in a solitary-confinement cell for interrogation. The officer was released and it was acknowledged that his arrest had been illegal. Orliuk died of poisoning. There was no proper official investigation into her death. In 2000, our columnist Igor Domnikov was murdered in the entrance to his home in Moscow. He had been reporting on corruption in Lipetsk Province. The culprits are now in the dock, but the people who ordered the hit are still free. In 2001, Viktor Popkov, a freelance correspondent and human rights activist, was killed in Chechnya. Yuri Shchekochikhin - our deputy editor, a parliamentary deputy and member of the Russian parlia mentary commission against corruption - died suddenly in 2003. He had received a number of death threats. A preliminary diagnosis suggested poisoning, but no official investigation ever took place. The killings testify to the fact that, in Russia, journalists have influence and are taken seriously. According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 Russian journalists have been murdered over the past 15 years. The Russian Union of Journalists estimates that more than 200 have been killed in ten years.

Appalling as it may sound, we have grown accustomed to these things happening. Anna's assassination provoked a stronger response in the west than it did in Russia. If it had not been for a telephone conversation between the Russian president and George Bush two days after the tragedy, and questions raised by European journalists, Vladimir Putin would probably not even have referred to her death. At a press conference in Germany, he emphasised that Politkovskaya's influence on Russian politics was negligible. He also blamed forces from abroad for her murder. Putin's thinking is shared by other state officials as well as the leaders of state-controlled businesses. They are, in effect, unaccountable to the public (or their shareholders); they look to their superiors alone; and they tend to interpret journalistic criticism as open hostility.

But it would be unfair to point the finger only at the authorities. Russian civil society, including its journalists, is immature, ill-developed and accustomed to being ignored by the state. Most people remain convinced that their views can have no impact. It would be optimistic to estimate that 10-15 per cent of the population is engaged with public life. The passive majority is stirred into action only when its survival or personal welfare is under threat. Russian pensioners came out on to the streets when they were deprived of free travel on public transport, for example. Car owners organised nationwide pro tests when the government attempted to stop the use of right-hand-drive vehicles. Yet when the elections for regional governors were called off in 2004, there was no sign of mass protest.

At present, most people do not consider elections as important as a car or a pension, and cannot imagine participating in decision-making. Journalists writing for publications that are not geared to entertainment or the mass market address a very small proportion of the population.

To be fair, there are signs of change. When, in 2005, the car of a regional governor rammed another at 125mph, the owner of the other vehicle - a member of the public - was deemed respon sible for the accident. With press support, a national wave of protest ensued and the verdict was overturned in March last year. This offers some hope that the public is capable of making its views heard, though the threshold of sensitivity to events remains extremely low.

Dangerous assignments

In the provinces, living standards vary a great deal and it would be a mistake to judge Russia by Moscow or St Petersburg. "The other Russia" begins just beyond the Moscow ring road, and the degree of free speech permitted there is considerably lower than in the capital. The catalogue of assassinated journalists consists mainly of people who worked in the provinces. Their names are unlikely to be publicised in Europe because they reported on local issues: corruption among governors and heads of administration, their links with crime, battles for regional ownership, and the involvement of the local security services, law-enforcement agencies, public pro secutors' offices and courts in these struggles.

Regional assignments are the most dangerous. Local authorities react to publications far more ruthlessly than federal ones. The heads of local administrations and presidents of republics within the Russian Federation have free rein in their dealings with journalists. On their own territory, they are small-time "tsars", and they mimic the central authorities in exaggerated form. The militia, public prosecutor's offices, courts and the special services are deployed to create obstacles for newspapers. Legal justifications are provided for formality's sake, but the game is poorly played and motives behind the allegations are all too visible.

In 2006, a newspaper in Perm, in the Urals, permitted itself to criticise the local authorities. A police search of the editorial offices followed. Militiamen removed computers, servers, discs, flashcards, audio recordings and photographs. That summer, all members of the editorial team faced criminal charges for "causing offence" and "disseminating state secrets". A series of critical articles published in a paper in the mining town of Kemerovo prompted the governors of that province to write to the office of the public prosecutor, demanding that measures be taken against the editor. The regional office of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, told the public prosecutor's office it had legal grounds to investigate the paper. In Kaliningrad, a newspaper frequently critical of the local authorities had its entire print run sequestrated, its offices searched and computers confiscated.

Regional newspapers in any position to criticise may belong to local opposition parties (sometimes to local MPs). They may be small publications founded by business people in conflict with the regional administration, who use the newspaper as a weapon in the struggle for private ownership. Or they may be a combination of these. In such conditions, journalistic standards in the provinces are not high and editorial independence is elusive. Never theless, this may be the only opportunity for regional audiences to hear criticism of the local authorities and get access to alternative information.

Clumsy acts

Journalists employed by mainstream publications are in a less dangerous position. Criticism of the federal authorities does not instantly lead to searches, arrests and criminal allegations for one reason - there is no cause for high-level officials to perform clumsy acts of vengeance in full view of the media at home and abroad. It is far more effective to make a deal with a newspaper owner, and if a loyal businessman is persuaded to take ownership of the paper, so much the better. Alternatively, material released by newspapers with small circulations can simply be ignored. Unpleasant reports will not be disseminated widely, because central TV channels, which have tens of millions of viewers, are entirely under state control.

In conditions where law-enforcement agencies, the public prosecutor's office and the courts are compromised and the public is undemanding, the publication of even the most damning information does not bring about change. A multilayered field of protection - loyal owner, obedient television, dependent state arbiters - guarantees that no one will rock the boat. If necessary, legal proceedings can always be opened.

Novaya Gazeta's experience in this area is considerable. One example: a former nuclear energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, sued us for defaming his "honour, dignity and professional reputation". By way of evidence we offered the court copies of documents on which we had based an article about him. Adamov won. We then published facsimiles of documents containing the minister's signature, so that our readers would understand how this case had been handled. Some years later Adamov was detained in Switzerland at the request of a US district attorney general. He was extradited to Russia to face criminal charges. A case against him is now under way in the same Russian court. It rests on the very facts to which Novaya Gazeta had originally referred. From time to time, our journalists are summoned to the public prosecutor's office or to the FSB. Generally, a criminal case will be initiated in response to an article that, in the eyes of the public prosecutor or the special services, exposes a state secret. This happened when we published a list of former special service employees who had gone on to work for private business.

It is no secret that Russian state officials have strong links with business. Not long ago, we put together some material about a little-known firm, which had suddenly been granted a highly lucrative contract. After examining the facts, we turned to the company's directors and to state officials for comment. Soon after, Novaya Gazeta was offered US$240,000 not to publish the material. When we refused, we received a series of telephone calls from government employees, and later from the presidential administration. Officials tried to interfere with editorial decisions and stop publication. The material appeared nonetheless and there are now hints of possible legal proceedings.

The most common reaction to criticism of highly placed officials, however, is silence. In 2005, we published lists of criminal cases that had featured the names of President Putin and several cabinet ministers. We called upon one of the former leading investigators in the case in which Putin's name appeared. He had been forced to resign after several cases he was investigating were aborted. All the cases concerned Russian officials, and there was no hope that they would be indicted. After the investigator resigned, he brought a lawsuit against Putin as a common citizen, trying to prove that the cases had been stopped illegally. The court received a letter from the president's office saying that Putin could not be part of the process. We turned to officials for comment but received no response. Even the publication of documents from criminal cases in which the head of state's name has appeared will not bring repercussions. By the next day the public will have forgotten.

Minority interest

A journalist becomes a target not as a result of criticising the Kremlin and the state, as is often thought in the west, but after investigating how the bureaucracy in the regions really functions, where state policies are leading and who stands to gain. These were the issues Anna Politkov skaya addressed. I do not think that a Kremlin official organised her assassination, but the Kremlin is fully responsible for creating the situation in which the murder became possible.

Journalism becomes a threat and a serious irritant when it begins to influence social dynamics. Politkovskaya's reports had this effect because they were seen by foreign human rights organisations as an alternative source of information. She had become more than a journalist: she was a social activist. It is not criticism of the Kremlin itself that endangers Russian journalists, but the threat they pose to an old system of relationships that benefits a tiny minority of people. And that will not be permitted.

Roman Shleinov is investigations editor of Novaya Gazeta

Translation by Irena Maryniak

A version of this article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge