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#10 - JRL 7259
From: "Kirill Pankratov" <pkirill88@hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: JRL 7248 #4: How a journalist gets at the Truth, by Gideon Lichfield
Date: Mon, 21 Jul 2003

“The Economist” correspondent Gideon Litchfield offered a rather fascinating story of his often-frustrating attempts to get to the bottom of the Yukos intrigue. He seems to be genuinely trying at least, which is more than can be said of many other foreign media corps in Moscow, always ready to put forward predictable stereotypes.

But do we really need ten different interpretation of this affair? The overall picture does not seem to be too outlandish or illogical. Getting richer and more powerful, Khodorkovsky and Yukos naturally try to extend their influence to the top government echelons. On the other hand, while wealth itself is no longer objectionable in Russia, the president and his surrounding does not take lightly when business tycoons try to ran their own private foreign policy – in such rather important matters as export pipelines, control over the Gasprom, policy with regards to OPEC, WTO, tariffs and taxes (an I think the president is right about this), and tycoon is shown in a rather blunt and may be clumsy way about this matter. There can be a myriad of details and interpretations of all this, but, frankly, they are not that interesting.

Gideon Litchfield mentioned his physics background and his vision of “the truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”. Having an education in physics myself (with a Ph.D. from MIT among other things), I can give him another bit of advice from the quantitative science. When the data is too noisy, it is meaningless to explain every datapoint, to adamantly pursue every tiny squiggle on a curve. Frankly, I would not spend so much efforts in trying to fit every possible piece together, especially considering that many pieces are false, tampered with, or from an entirely different puzzle.

In Moscow there are too many people with too much time on their hands, all of whom claim to be “independent analysts”, have their own “think tanks”, or “political foundations”, and pretend to be the most knowledgeable insiders to every juicy morsels of political chatter, with their main purpose to be frequently interviewed by often clueless foreign media correspondents and to extract some material and other gains from such activity.

It could be worse: in US the answer would most likely be an excruciatingly bland repetition of the party line (whichever party the interlocutor belongs to). And in United Kingdom… I’ve been on a vacation in England with my family when the news broke there about the Chelsea sold to Mr. Abramovich. There weren’t ten wildly different interpretations, to be exact. Just a lot of copycat xenophobic rants about “Russian mafioso millionaires” invading good old England.

By the way, speaking of mysteries: I wonder where such ranking surveys are coming from, which claim Moscow more expensive than London (as recently published by the Mercer consultancy). While London is a marvelous city to visit, it is the most outrageously priced place I can recall. A tiny hotel room, without air conditioning, away from the center, costs well over a hundred pounds, decent food is way more expensive than anywhere. Each time we took a taxi, even for a short ride, the fare never seem to drop below 10 pounds, while in Moscow I was always able to flag a car, that for equivalent of a couple of pounds could get me anywhere within the central part of the city and beyond. Not to mention that Moscow Metro will deliver anyone to his/her destination much cheaper and faster than London’s claustrophobic Tube.

In any case, this is certainly not a Mr. Litchfield’s fault, and my point here is not to criticize him in any way. His reporting, I think, is a big improvement over the previous correspondent of The Economist in Moscow, Edward Lucas. The latter bestowed on us such brilliant predictions (from “The World in 1999” glossy booklet) as: “1999 will be the year of Russia's disintegration… Trade between Russia's regions will plunge at least until they hit on a stable, trusted currency in which to do business. That is hardly likely to be the rouble, and the planned coupons and currencies which some regions have been planning look equally unattractive substitutes. How much would a Urals franc be worth in Rostov-on-Don, or a Saratov mark in Perm? ...foreign invasion, albeit of a peaceful and benevolent kind, is exactly what Russia's regions should want… The probable decline in Russia's wealth in 1999 will be around 10%… expect yet another bleak and miserable year”. E. Lukas also advised (in an interview to a Latvian newspaper, The Economist itself would be squeamish to publish too un-PC material) Baltic countries to be “tougher” on Russian-speakers, up to “ignoring pressure from EU”, and that “Russia will always be a threat to the Baltics”. Declining citizenship and civil rights to a third of population, most of whom were born there or lived for decades, apparently was “too soft” a policy.

But back to intrigues and mysteries. Who says such things happen only in Russia? I’d argue that when the world sole superpower and its loyal CoW (Coalition of the Willing) minions go for a biggest war in a decade, based on a case made almost entirely of forged documents, politically edited intelligence reports, excerpts from student theses of 10 years ago, and outright lies and demagoguery, and especially when dead bodies closely related to the affair turn up in the woods, the whole thing looks like a murkier and juicier story than a scandal around past dealings of a big oil company.

Going a bit further into history, here is one intrigue or conspiracy, which genuinely puzzled me, may be The Economist correspondent or somebody else could clear this one out. Who was behind a wholesale smear campaign of all Russian businesses and banks, which began exactly one year after August 17, 1998 default (and was known mainly as the “BoNY affair”)? Suddenly there was an explosion of sensational and sinister stories, among which The Economist was perhaps the squeakiest wheel, how the innocent and law-abiding western businesses are threatened by global invasion of Russian mobsters: “…evil of organised crime is woven into Russian life—and that it is starting to infect the rest of the world”, “…most successful business in Russia today is organized crime, which is spreading across the world and threatens to do more damage than Soviet spies ever did during the Cold War”, “…at least 10 billion dollars of laundered money that came from contract killings, drug trafficking and prostitution”.

All this huge media campaign, a criminal probe and a congressional investigation, eventually turned up, instead of some vast network of murderous thugs, only a mild-mannered former physicist (my wife used to know him a bit when they both were in late 80’s young researchers in a big academic institute in Moscow) and his wife, who apparently concocted a tax-avoidance scheme similar to those used by hundreds of American corporations, and at worst all potential misdeeds would not make a top hundred among recent cases of US corporate thievery. Predictably, neither The Economist nor anybody else retracted or apologized for this slanderfest.

Ah, the mysteries of the world. You know, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, // Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

Kirill Pankratov, Ph.D. Acton, MA, pkirill88@hotmail.com

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