Empire Files: Post-Soviet Russia Made in the USA

Empire Files: Post-Soviet Russia Made in the USA


Anti-Russian hysteria
is at a new peak with the political establishment and corporate media
jointly accusing Russia of interfering in the
recent US 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 US-Russia relations. Beyond just influencing
elections in Russia, the US, along with Western
capitalist institutions, set the stage for the
entire political system they now condemn. To learn more about
US 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. So 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. —It’s certainly plausible. Russia has motive, which is everything we’ve
done to that country since the late 1980s, which is…. Meddling in their democracy
is putting it very mildly. We basically restructured their
entire political economy, and then 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
are 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 kinds 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… you can’t really describe them as anything but a sort of
disinformation campaign on us, on the domestic public. And the other thing
is that Obama, and the Democrats, and the centrist Republicans
who are pushing this story 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 a really dark joke —the whole thing so far. —But of course the most absurd
point of this whole thing is how much the US 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) stolen election where Yeltsin took power. Talk about what the
US did in that election. —Yeah, so I actually interviewed, 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 wash my report,” and so it was officially
known as free and fair. There was fraud in every
single Russian election. I mean fairly significant
fraud by our standards, not hugely significant, let’s say, by some hardcore
dictatorial standards, but certainly three, four, five percent was often stolen and the template was really set in the 1996 elections
that got Boris Yeltsin from about a 3% [approval] rating. Boris Yeltsin in his
five years in office dragged Russia into a war in which about 100,000
people were killed, and they lost. The average life expectancy of a Russian male plummeted
from 68 years to 56 years. It had a death to
birth ratio perhaps never seen in the 20th century, even during war times. People just dying like flies everywhere. [There was] no state support. Just pure banditry starting
with Yeltsin at the top, all the way down. So he had actually, 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’s always been popular. With Yeltsin you had
to perform a miracle. This guy was absolutely hated and is still one of the
probably two or three most hated Russians
in modern history for what he did to the country. And so it was a tough job, and Clinton was also running for
re-election that year [1996], and 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 advisers, of course, advising them, but the Treasury Department —we found out about this when
we were reporting on this— the Treasury Department was
actually drafting decrees on the creation of capital markets, on the legal structure
of the economy. 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
hundred-dollar bill notes when we were flying them in, and the Russian media was
reporting it at the time. And the top journalists,
liberal journalists, were reporting that. We knew that stacks and stacks of hundred-dollar bills would be flown in, brought to the US Embassy, and then presumably from
there to the central bank, but this was during the election. Anyway the Russians believe, and that’s what matters the most, even the liberal Russians believe 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. In Chechnya where—again between 50 and a 100 thousand
people were killed there —villages which had been
wiped out voted 90, voted actually probably
150% for Yeltsin. This was 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 who he was running
against were more overtly nationalist, more virulently 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. Before 1996 there was 1993 when you mentioned
that The New York Times, as well as Bill Clinton, actually helped subvert the first
democratically elected parliament. Yeltsin was… there were
basically two rival bodies that were both elected
democratically in Soviet times. This is Yeltsin in
the executive branch and the Supreme
Soviet which was 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 and advised by USAID
[United States Agency for International Development]
and by Harvard. Harvard basically ran
Russia’s privatization program, and then it turned out that the top Harvard people under Andrei Shleifer and Jonathan Hay who ran the whole [project] setting
up their capital markets, setting up their
privatization programs, both of them wound up
eventually being prosecuted by the Department of Justice
for insider dealing. They would set up rules for
the mutual fund market and then they would give no-bid
tenders to their wives to start up a fund that would
get all this Russian state money, and they did all
kinds of insider dealing. Again, all this stuff
we’ve forgotten because it didn’t hurt us, but none of these
people have forgotten —people that are in
power in Russia now —what we did. So Yeltsin and the young reformers as they were called, that were backed by Americans, had their ideas and the Supreme Soviet
had its ideas, which were probably
more egalitarian. They all kind of
agreed that they needed 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 about 500 to 1,000
people were killed. We completely backed it up —the New York Times editorials and Clinton
openly backed him up, immediately sent
him 10 billion dollars more of IMF aid
when they did this. That was right when
I moved to Russia. I moved about a week… I’m sorry, a month before… not even a month… a couple weeks before
into the same district. Bullets were flying everywhere, and it was pretty crazy. I watched tanks fire into
the Parliament building and saw a huge explosion go out and Americans cheered it on, and in fact, a couple 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 them up, and then he had an election
a couple months later. They created a new constitution, and—this is also really important —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 USAID paid PR agencies
like Burson-Marsteller to help promote these referendums
on that, on the privatization vouchers. We were behind everything. It was essentially a colony. There is no other way to put it. It was like a colony,
a defeated power, and we screwed it up hugely. —Let’s talk more about
the economic structure. You lived under Yeltsin for years, since right after the
fall of the Soviet Union. You describe these years as
a neo-liberal fire sale when Russia was essentially
colonized by foreign capital. Talk specifically about what that means. —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. Russia has the number one or two largest oil reserves in the world, a third of the world’s natural gas, 70% of the world’s palladium,
I think. 1/3 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 US
Treasury Department, so this is one way all
of these state enterprises, which employed a lot of people, were sold to a handful of oligarchs. Sometimes they didn’t
really even pay for them. The way they paid for them was these oligarchs owned banks which became Finance Ministry
or treasury vehicles, so if you needed to pay
teachers and doctors, the treasury didn’t have
a way of disseminating it, so they disseminated it through
an oligarch’s bank network. The oligarchs would take the money and hold up paying teachers. There were teachers and workers who weren’t paid for
2 or 3 years at a time while the oligarchs took the money, and spun it around, and our advice always
while this was happening was Russia needs to
tighten its belt more. Russia needs to tighten
its belt more. It can’t pay its teachers because
it needs 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 would 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 we may want to roll our
eyes at the 90s because, again, we didn’t suffer, but Russians suffered
enormously then, and honestly I’m surprised
they’re not more angry with us about that. They seem almost more
angry with us over… I didn’t see the anger really explode until we bombed Kosovo in 1999. Then suddenly all these
Russians turned against us, and it all kind of started
make sense to them, but before then 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
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 was incredibly traumatic, and so Putin was brought in. When he first appeared there was this great relief, I think, for a lot of Russians because he was a guy who
a) didn’t drink, and b) seemed serious, and he seemed like
somebody who was more seriously interested in not doing any more
experiments on the country. The Russians kept saying, “We don’t want to be
experimented on anymore” and the American attitude was: “OK 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 was just equated with
stealing from everybody. —Paint the picture for
us at the end of the 90s. What did life look like then? —Yeah, so at the end of the 90s, 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 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
1/3rd of the country lived on subsistence farming. Now this is a northern country 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 we unilaterally went ahead to bomb Kosovo in Yugoslavia. That was when Russians really… That was when a lot of them were… I guess you could say the emerging pro-Western
middle-class types even sort of said, “Wow. Maybe those cranky old
communist and nationalists were actually right about
you guys all along. We’re next, aren’t we?” 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. He was implicated
in getting kickbacks of money he approved to Yeltsin. It was the craziest… Everything was stolen. Everything was stolen. —I wanted to briefly talk about why Yeltsin chose Putin. And what did he do to
protect the oligarchy? —Yeltsin was desperate. He was sick. He’d been pretty sick
since probably 1995-96. 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 couldn’t rely on may come and take power, and prosecute them, so this was the atmosphere that Yeltsin was in in 1999. There was also going to
be an election in 1999, and they were starting to worry that if they were
to lose the election, or they didn’t have
a strong successor to Yeltsin, or even prime minister, 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 of the deep state we’re turning against Yeltsin, and Yeltsin had
named Vladimir Putin as his head of the FSB,
the Intelligence Agency, in late 1998. I think it was in mid-1998, and he was proving very
trustworthy and loyal. As head of the FSB
he 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
of the general prosecutor —he would be like
our attorney general —having sex with two prostitutes. He put it on television. Yeltsin saw that and said, “This is my man, and
he’s going to protect me.” —During the Yeltsin era there
were countless assassinations of journalists,
of political dissidents. This was going on
in conjunction with this horrific time of
inequality and joblessness, and everything like that. Why didn’t the US care about
press freedoms in Russia then, like it does now? —Again, because it
was a vassal state. It wasn’t a threat. It was a vassal state and what we really cared about was keeping Russia
as weak as possible and getting access
to the resources, and enormous resources, not just in Russia but in
the Caspian Sea countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan. We wanted those resources, so we could give him a free pass as long as we could get
ahold of the loot there. It’s a good point. Look, when I got there, shortly after I got there, one of the most popular
young Russian journalists, Dmitry Kholodov —this was 1994 —and he was investigating Yeltsin’s really powerful defense minister for one of the big Russian dailies, Moscow Komsomolets, and he was publishing some
pretty sensational stuff about really appalling corruption that was going on that the defense
minister was responsible for. Yeltsin knew about it, and so they set him up. They said there’s a briefcase
full of sensational documents and with this you’re going
to be an even bigger star. They had a very, very vibrant,
open, wild press at this time, 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 defense minister?” Everybody knew what happened, but again this is a question of heating rods. We kept saying, “Well, if we weaken Yeltsin in any way, the Communists could come to power, so we’ve got to 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
through its first consolidation. Basically, it was all pretty free before, and very wild and unruly. During the election that
was stolen by Yeltsin 1996, the American advisers 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 advise them to lie. So they created this reality
during the 1996 campaign that if the Communists win… It was propaganda nonstop on television showing people hanging from lamp posts and people in gulags. And then after Yeltsin won, the complete oligarch-ization of Russia meant that the entire media after that was one of the favors handed out, so this oligarch had this newspaper, this television network
and this whatever, and then all journalists at that point suddenly worked for oligarchs, and again, remember Russia at this time was the focus of the empire. It was our number one colony, and it was the project of the
century for the American empire. —Right, it’s like the Red Scare, except there are no Reds. Russia is capitalist. It’s an oligarchy. We collaborated on that front. What is the threat today
that Russia poses to the US Empire that is causing this insane
hysteria and aggression? —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 amazing sense
of justice or whatever, but there was no countervailing power, and what we’ve seen in Syria where Russia went in and had actually a much more
strategically coherent objective, which was to back the
government and their forces, and they succeeded. And just that alone is
very deeply threatening to people who are used to
having their own way. It’s a threat to full spectrum dominance, so I guess it’s a threat on that level. —Mark, you have many contacts
still on the ground in Russia. What is their reaction to this? Yeah, I’m noticing not only my contacts, but regular people, and Russian opposition to Putin are all very weirded out by this. At first I think they
were sort of amused, and as it has gone on and on, they’re realizing we’re
trying to expel [diplomats]. 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. There was schadenfreude
there for a while, but I think the schadenfreude is kind of turning into a dread of what this really means. 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… relations won’t be as hostile
for at least six months, but God knows after that. —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? 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
like some things about Putin. He’s a mensch, whatever,
a 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 doing by baiting the Hillary Democrats, and baiting journalists by playing 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 you know this guy has more skeletons in his closet than anybody in history. I mean he’s a mobster… the bigotry… With everything that
Trump has on his record, 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 —for example, not just if Putin does something that crosses Trump,
and crosses Trump’s ego, but more like Trump has
kind of 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 [Washington] DC bubble, that actually being
the guy who used to be… So imagine the credibility in the PR world: “I was the guy who was
most friendly with him [Putin], and he still turned against me.” 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 we probably don’t
want to think about.

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