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Vladimir Putin has returned to his people after a noted absence. Like Jesus Christ, but with a longer interlude. Was Vladimir Vladimirovich on paternity leave? Has he been ill? Did a botox injection go wrong? Was he fending off a coup? Has there, in fact, been a coup? Is this even the real Putin we see before us? Has he been replaced by a KGB cyborg?
It’s all delightfully old-fashioned, as if global politics was being staged by the Secret Cinema people. Any day now, someone will declare that Kremlinology is the hot new thing among urban ABC1 early adopters.
As ever, this column aims to be ahead of the curve. So what do we know?
The near-coincidence of the murder of Boris Nemtsov and the temporary disappearance of the president is bound to raise suspicion. I recall a conversation with an old colleague who grew up under the Soviet system. The idea of “cock up versus conspiracy” came up. I explained haughtily how people were wrong to see invisible hands guiding events when sheer human incompetence was almost always the explanation when things went weird. “Yes,” my friend replied. “But where I’m from, there usually is a conspiracy.”
The rounding up of some Chechens to pin the assassination of Nemtsov on feels almost contemptuous. It’s like the Russian authorities are not even bothering any more, or as if they are hoping to win a medal for sheer chutzpah in the face of the facts.
The suggestion that seems to be gaining ground is that Putin is no longer in charge, or perhaps won’t be for much longer. People such as The Economist’s Ed Lucas, The Times’s Roger Boyes and The Interpreter’s Catherine Fitzpatrick now speak deadly seriously about a return to the Cold War, with Putin outflanked by people who think he is not hardline enough.
A long blogpost on the current situation by Fitzpatrick outlines the scenarios. Former Prime Minister Primikov has issued an ultimatum to Putin, but Primakov himself could not command a move against Putin. Nemtsov had to go because a popular outsider could have caused problems for a palace coup. What is the involvement of Duma Deputy Delimkhanov, a cousin of Chechen President Kadyrov? What is the position of Viktor Zolotov, head of internal troops? It all becomes dizzyingly complicated, like an epic Russian novel, or Woody Allen’s parody of the epic Russian novel, Love and Death: “Alexei loves Tatiana like a sister… Tatiana’s sister loves Trigorian like a brother… Trigorian’s brother is having an affair with my sister, who he likes physically, but not spiritually… The firm of Mishkin and Mishkin is sleeping with the firm of Taskov and Taskov.”
Putin returned this week, not offering an explanation for his 10-day absence, but instead wryly commenting, during a press conference with the president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, that “life would be boring without gossip”.
Indeed, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Indeed.
The miasma to the east of the European Union’s borders has become more impenetrable and more obvious since the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine. Events there now take on the characteristics of the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s recent book Nothing Is Real And Everything Is Possible — a state of affairs where the brazen manipulation of truth is taken to staggering levels, to the point where an invasion is not an invasion, a war is somehow not taking place.
The Kremlin and its oligarch clients may not care much for truth, but one would hope that Cambridge University Press would.
CUP has been criticised by the organisers of a book prize for its refusal to publish a book on Russia by one of its own authors in the United Kingdom. According to The Observer, judges of the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize attempted review Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha for competition, but CUP refused to submit it.
“We attempted to get hold of the Dawisha book but the publisher would not submit it to us because of legal advice about UK libel laws. Our judges noted the book and said it raised important issues that deserved a wider audience, but unfortunately could not all get hold of a copy to pass judgment,” Andrew Jack, chair of the judges told the paper.
Disappointing indeed, and confirmation of the continual refusal by CUP to publish this book in the UK. The depressing thing about this, as noted in this column last year, is that CUP has not questioned the veracity of Dawisha’s work.
John Haslam of CUP wrote last year that: “We have no reason to doubt the veracity of what you say, but we believe the risk is high that those implicated in the premise of the book — that Putin has a close circle of criminal oligarchs at his disposal and has spent his career cultivating this circle — would be motivated to sue and could afford to do so. Even if CUP was ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.”
I don’t like the language of “bravery” around publishers, but frankly, I’m beginning to doubt CUP’s commitment to the cause of academic freedom. More particularly, one wonders who is offering the company legal advice. Substantive reform to the libel law has made it considerably more difficult for foreigners to bring cases in London. Dawisha is not a fly-by-night hack, but a serious researcher. Conditions for publication are favourable. And faced with an entire Kremlin apparatus which has perfected the use of smoke and mirrors, the world needs all the information it can get.
CUP says it has contacted Dawisha to see “whether we might be able to find a compromise”. But considering they have already admitted there is nothing wrong with the book, it’s difficult to see what Dawisha’s side of the compromise might be.
This thing has dragged on too long now. For God’s sake, Cambridge; just publish the bloody thing.
At a conference in Prague last Spring, I listened as the wife of a former diplomat quizzed a Russian journalist on Russian politics. An old Cold War hand, she was keen to discover what motivated Putin and his cadre. Was it some hankering after communism? Was it plain nationalism?
The journalist, displaying the scepticism bordering on cynicism that, ironically, is often found among journalists bravely reporting in monstrous circumstances, shrugged. It would be a mistake, she suggested, to ascribe any value or ideology, even one as meagre as nostalgia, to the current Kremlin. Putin’s regime is about power and money and absolutely nothing else. There is no Putinism. There is just gangsterism.
It’s probably worth keeping this in mind while we fret over the geopolitics of Putin’s Crimean Anschluss. Indeed more than that, it’s clearly a point of view that merits more study. Unfortunately, one recent study of Putin’s gangster tendencies has been suppressed: not by the Kremlin, but by a UK academic publisher living in fear of England’s libel laws.
Karen Dawisha, Director of Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, was set to publish a book on Putin’s gangster connections. One hesitates to use the dread stock book review phrase “timely and relevant”, but in this case it seems difficult to avoid it. The proposed subtitle “How, why and when did Putin decide to build a Kleptocratic and Authoritarian Regime in Russia and what is its Future?” gives a pretty good impression of what the book would contain.
According to Ed Lucas at the Economist, Dawisha’s publishers, Cambridge University Press, has taken fright at the prospect of a book actually investigating gangsterism among Putin and his cronies, and decided it will not publish the book.
In a letter to Dawisha, published by the Economist, John Haslam of CUP noted:
“After discussion with legal colleagues who have reviewed the typescript from both a US and UK legal perspective, I’m afraid that our view is that we are not in a position to proceed with your book. The decision has nothing to do with the quality of your research or your scholarly credibility. It is simply a question of risk tolerance in light of our limited resources.”
Haslam goes on:
“We have no reason to doubt the veracity of what you say, but we believe the risk is high that those implicated in the premise of the book—that Putin has a close circle of criminal oligarchs at his disposal and has spent his career cultivating this circle—would be motivated to sue and could afford to do so. Even if the Press was ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.”
This is depressing reading, and sadly familiar.
Six and a half years ago, Cambridge University Press was faced with a similar problem, and reacted in a similar fashion, i.e. capitulation.
Back then, publishers’ dreams were tormented not by Russian gangsters but Saudi bankers. Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz was the scourge of Fleet Street’s inhouse legal teams. The Saudi, who had bought Irish citizenship from kleptocrat Taoiseach Charles Haughey, was notorious for issuing threats and writs to any publication or publisher that so much as mentioned him – particularly when it came to suggestions that he may have been linked, either personally or financially, to Osama Bin Laden.
Everyone I mentioned in that last paragraph is dead now, by the way, which is why I feel no qualms about writing about any of them.
When Index first wrote about Bin Mahfouz there were many, many fraught discussions and even arguments about how to proceed. That’s a big part of what campaigners, lawyers and hacks mean when they talk about the “chilling effect” of defamation laws. The knowledge of working on something that could be ruinuous not just personally, but for an entire publication, can make you queasy and put your colleagues on edge. The fact that Bin Mahfouz, worth over $3.2 billion dollars, could have tied up even the biggest publications in endless, expensive litigation tended to put people off. Even when people did publish, in the end they always backed down in the face of the Sheikh’s muscle. His personal website featured an entire section dedicated to apologies hastily issued by terrified newspaper legal departments after Bin Mahfouz threatened them with a trip to the High Court.
Anyway, in 2007, CUP were about to publish a book on funding for Islamist terror, called Alms For Jihad. Bin Mahfouz got wind of it, and issued the usual threats via his lawyers, Kendall Freeman. CUP apparently jumped through a few hoops, asking the book’s American authors, Robert O Collins and J Millard Burr to compile a letter countering the claims in bin Mahfouz’s book. But in the end they pulped the book and recalled library copies. It was a low point, but in a curious way, some good came out of it. The Alms For Jihad case was among those that highlighted the serious problems with English defamation law. Not long after the pulping of Alms For Jihad, the first stirrings of the Libel Reform Campaign began. On 1 January 2014, a new defamation law came into force.
So why are we seeing a repeat of the Alms For Jihad debacle with this book on Putin and his cronies?
The new law should make it harder for foreign litigants to sue in London, and it should make them prove that they have suffered genuine damage. Without having seen the contents of the book (CUP say there is no reason to doubt the veracity of Dawisha’s claims about Putin’s circle, while simultaneously refusing to stand by their author), one would imagine that, particularly given US and European moves against Putin’s inner circle, the book would have had a decent chance in court.
But the new law will need to be tested. It may be that while the legal barrier to putting up a spirited defence of free speech in court has been considerably lowered, the mental block remains for many publishers. Only a strong early ruling under the new law will shake this off.
But who’s going have the first go?