“Justice” for a billionaire, none for the state he ripped off

There has been much cheering across the corporate media about the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ordering the Russian government to pay more than US$51 billion as compensation for confiscating the assets of Yukos, yet silence concerning the original theft of the company by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The basis of the decision by the arbitration court was that the assets of Yukos, seized for alleged non-payment of taxes, were sold for US$9 billion, well below the estimated value of the company. Conveniently left out of this picture is that Mr. Khodorkovsky purchased the assets for $159 million seven years earlier in a rigged process that he controlled. He did so as one of seven oligarchs who bought deeply unpopular former President Boris Yeltsin a second term and were handed control of the country’s vast natural resources as a reward.

This is a story that can not be separated from the fall of the Soviet Union and the looting of its assets, with a handful of newly minted oligarchs, mostly former black marketeers who became bankers, coming to control post-Soviet Russia’s economy. Estimates of the size of the assets that came to be owned by the seven biggest oligarchs (Mr. Khodorkovsky was one of them) in the late 1990s range up to one-half of the Russian economy. This at the same time that the Russian economy shrank by 45 percent and an estimated 74 million Russians lived in poverty according to the World Bank; two million had been in poverty in 1989.

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

An important factor in the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was that working people saw the reforms as coming at their expense. A 1987 reform loosened job protections in exchange for enterprise councils that were to have given workers a voice in management, but the councils were largely ineffective or co-opted by managements. The law had also been intended to eliminate labor shortages. It didn’t, and a 1990 reform was stealthily passed to reduce employment and eliminate the ability of working people to defend themselves. Enterprises would now have private owners with the right to impose management and ownership shares could be sold.

Exhaustion from years of struggle also were a factor in the lack of organized resistance to the elements of capitalism that were introduced in the last years of perestroika and to the shock therapy that was imposed on Russia at the start of 1992, days after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the assumption of uncontested power by President Yeltsin. Shock therapy wiped out Russians’ savings through hyperinflation and state enterprises were sold at fire-sale prices, or sometimes simply taken.

Connections allowed him to set up businesses

Mr. Khodorkovsky used his connections as an official within the Communist Youth League to found a company that imported and resold computers and other goods at huge profits and engaged in currency speculation. The proceeds were used to buy companies on the cheap and found a bank. His bank, Menatep, earned large fees by providing credit when it was in scarce supply during the post-Soviet collapse.

When President Yeltsin was up for re-election in 1996, he faced a daunting challenge as his popularity rating was well below 10 percent — tens of millions of Russians had been plunged into poverty and the economy had contracted for several years in succession. The president admitted in his memoirs that he was about to cancel the election. But he was presented with a plan by the seven oligarchs, the scheme that became known as “loans for shares.”

These seven oligarchs offered President Yeltsin a bargain: In lieu of paying taxes, they would make loans to the government so it could meet its expenses, such as actually paying its employees. In return, the government would give the oligarchs collateral in the form of shares of the big natural-resources enterprises that were soon to be privatized. (Other state enterprises had been quickly privatized upon the implementation of shock therapy.)

If the loans were repaid, the bankers would give the shares back. If not, the oligarchs would hold auctions to sell the collateral. The government had no ability to pay back these loans, but President Yeltsin issued a decree sealing the deal in August 1995.

The oligarchs used their own banks to conduct the subsequent auctions, and, through a mix of rigged terms and conveniently closed airports, won them all at prices that were small fractions of the enterprises’ reasonable market value. These enterprises represented Russia’s enormous reserves of oil, nickel, aluminum and gold, and a minority share in the dominant gas company, Gazprom.

These seven oligarchs all became billionaires through the “loans for shares” scam. The oligarchs, who owned almost the entire Russia mass media, spent 33 times the legal limit on the election and provided 800 times more television coverage of President Yeltsin than was provided to his opponents.

Mr. Khodorkovsky’s bank, Menatep, was put in charge of the auction of Yukos. It avoided competitive bidding, enabling his holding company to buy it for $159 million, only $9 million above the starting price. As long as Boris Yeltsin was president, the oligarchs could steal all they wanted. Nor did Western authorities complain about this; President Yeltsin’s bombardment and illegal disbanding of the Russian Parliament in 1993, resulting in more than 500 deaths, was celebrated as a democratic triumph. Indeed, the World Bank’s chief economist for Russia declared, “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

Corporate lawyers as arbitrators

The Permanent Court of Arbitration that handed down the $51 billion judgment is one of the international tribunals that hear investor-state disputes behind closed doors. As is customary with these bodies, the arbitrators are corporate lawyers appointed by governments.

In the Yukos case, each side could choose one of the three panelists who hear the case. The deciding panelist was Yves Fortier, a former chair of one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms and of Alcan Inc., a mining company since bought by Rio Tinto, and a director of several other companies.

I see no sense in denying that politics were behind Mr. Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence and his loss of Yukos. But there can be no dispute that politics and shady dealing earned him his fortune in the first place. The gangster capitalism in which he excelled in the 1990s, cheered on by the West, was without mercy. Are there going to be outpourings of sympathy for the tens of millions of Russians immiserated so that the country’s Khodorkovskys could become billionaires? I think we already know the answer.

Power concedes nothing without a demand

We struggle because there is no alternative. We need to struggle because none of us can know when the spark will come. To not struggle is to give up.

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

I couldn’t help thinking about this subject again while helping out at an Occupy Wall Street information table last Sunday. As usual, there were many perspectives contending, but there was a distinct undercurrent of despair. Some articulated that as frustration that more people can’t be reached faster, but another subset was rooted in the idea that all is already lost, that we are already running out of time. From the latter it is a short journey toward giving up.

The process of organized resistance to injustice is called “struggle” for a reason — it is never easy. Frederick Douglass said it as well as it can said be a century and a half ago in words that will always bear repeating:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

During this process, success always lies over the horizon. Sometimes we struggle for something we won’t see in our lifetimes; history is replete with such examples. Sometimes we know we won’t see it in our lifetimes, but the call of a greater good animates us. Sometimes we do taste victory. But when? We can never know ahead of time.

One strike among many

Take Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, when the tsar was overthrown. People persevered for decades in conditions far worse than anybody in an advanced capitalist country faces. The movement waxed and waned; strikes and even peaceful marches were drowned in blood. St. Petersburg, then the capital, was racked by waves of strikes in the first weeks of 1917 amidst shortages of all kinds.

Put aside for the moment your opinion about the eventual course of Russian history; the people struggling to survive at this time shouldn’t be held responsible for the wrong turns the October Revolution later took. On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end.

Why that one day? Why that one strike among hundreds of actions? We can never know. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians had finally had enough. This amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries, occurred as most of the leaderships of the various political parties and organizations were in Siberian exile, in foreign exile or in jail.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions.

They changed their conditions even though most were so under-educated that they were illiterate; even though a omnipresent propaganda insisted that the tsar ruled as a direct representative of God and there could be no change; even though police, militaries, death squads and secret police promised swift retribution against anyone questioning the natural order, the only order that could be.

Dignity in the face of inhumanity

Take a more recent example, South Africa. The apartheid régime seemed impervious. Disdainful of world opinion, determined to hold power at any cost, murdering or shipping to island prisons its opponents with impunity, consigning the Black majority to grinding poverty and daily humiliation — how could optimism that a better day would come be sustained? Yet is was.

I remember vividly the day Nelson Mandela made his first speech after his release. The only picture we had of him had been that of a young man with a fierce expression. Now here he was, an older man with gray hair. I was startled by his appearance before remembering we were seeing him three decades older, all at once. I couldn’t quote to you a single word of what he said that day, but it was perhaps the most memorable speech I have ever witnessed. What I do remember is the dignity of Nelson Mandela. Dignity. He was not broken after 27 years in prison, not at all. But beyond that, the African National Congress leader was fully human.

He would not allow his humanity to be taken away, no matter how cruel his oppressors. Nelson Mandela made that speech because he was part of a movement. Only an organized movement could have brought that day. A movement willing to engage in struggle. Another African National Congress leader, Steven Biko, summarized a most important lesson in these words:

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Throwing up your hands in despair, declaring that nothing can be done so nothing should be started: You are oppressing yourself more effectively than any dictatorship, any sham democracy, any rule of financiers. To say “they” are too strong or too vicious, whomever “they” are, is to give up on living. Such an attitude is the surest route to your material conditions getting worse, to the next generation living under harsher conditions.

Everything of human creation is temporary. Everything of human creation will come to an end. Whether the next system will be better or worse, whether we or our descendants will be more or less free, is up to us.

The toll of privatization and the ideology of “there is no alternative”

No ideology lasts forever, and nothing of human creation lasts forever. Margaret Thatcher embodied the idea of stasis in thought and structure with her infamous statement that “there is no alternative,” which was given further form in her second most notorious utterance, “there is no such thing as society.”

There is no stasis, and five years and counting of economic crisis has chipped away at the idea that there is no alternative to present-day capitalism. It has perhaps also begun to undermine the former prime minister’s second quote, a stark encapsulation of the underlying ideology of everyone for themselves — that pitiless competition is the primary way that human beings relate to one another. Humans surely can be competitive. But they are at least as capable of cooperating, as the reactions to any natural disaster demonstrate.

Time plays its part as well. The bogeys of one generation fail to have the same effect on the next; now that two decades have passed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a powerful bogey is becoming less of a talisman for capitalists and the politicians who love them. Thus it is not surprising that polls show that young people are more open to socialism than their parents — the concrete realities of the debt-saturated, limited vistas that today’s economy offers them can not fail to grab their attention.

An often-cited April 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that the opinions of respondents in the United States ages 18 to 29 had virtually identical opinions of capitalism and socialism — both were viewed as favorable by 43 percent, while the unfavorable responses differed by one percentage point. An interesting aspect of this poll, much less noticed, is that among respondents who described themselves as Democrats, regardless of age, 44 percent had a positive response to the word “socialism” while 43 percent had a negative response. (Republicans and those who not identify with either major party responded strongly negatively.)

Opinions seem to be evolving, as a later poll, conducted in November 2012 by the conservative Gallup organization, found that 53 percent of “Democrats/Democratic leaners” were favorable to socialism (and 55 percent were favorable to capitalism). Perhaps most interestingly, 23 percent of “Republicans/Republican leaners” were favorable to socialism. Although three times as many of the Republican/Republican-leaning respondents answered positively to the word “capitalism,” nonetheless such a response would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Minds do seem on the move.

The toll from “shock therapy” is, well, shocking

If we are to believe “there is no alternative,” the result should be, if not paradise, then at least rapid improvement in countries in which capitalism was re-instated two decades ago, such as in Russia. But, alas, that has not been so.

Take, for example, a 2009 study published by The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals and hardly a bastion of socialist boosterism. The study, conducted by a team of professors from institutions like Oxford and Cambridge universities, concluded that the mass privatization in the former Soviet bloc — a critical aspect of economic programs often referred to as “shock therapy” — resulted in one million deaths. If you haven’t heard of this study, that is not surprising as it received almost no attention in the corporate media after its issuance.

An Oxford University press release announcing the publication of the study (“The public health effect of economic crises and alternative policy responses in Europe: an empirical analysis”) said:

“The Oxford-led study measured the relationship between death rates and the pace and scale of privatisation in 25 countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, dating back to the early 1990s. They found that mass privatisation came at a human cost: with an average surge in the number of deaths of 13 per cent or the equivalent of about one million lives.”

The study used World Health Organization mortality statistics corrected for a series of factors, including population aging, past mortality and employment trends, and country-specific differences in health-care infrastructure. The study found a definitive link between increased mortality and shock therapy:

“David Stuckler, from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, said: ‘Our study helps explain the striking differences in mortality in the post-communist world. Countries which pursued rapid privatisation, or ‘shock therapy’, had much greater rises in deaths than countries which followed a more gradual path. Not only did rapid privatisation lead to mass unemployment but also wiped out the social safety nets, which were critical for helping people survive during this turbulent period.’ ”

The whip was applied earlier than critics assert

Naturally, this sort of ideologically inconvenient research did not lack counter-studies. The Lancet, in January 2010, published “Did mass privatisation really increase post-communist mortality?,” which, this set of authors admit, was motived by an unwillingness to accept the study led by Professor Stuckler. The authors of the counter-study, led by Christopher J. Gerry, made, inter alia, the following complaints:

“[T]he data show that the health trends driving the association noted by Stuckler and colleagues pre-date the introduction of mass privatisation programmes in the post-communist world. … [T]he Russian privatisation programme, announced in December, 1992, and completed in June, 1994, cannot plausibly be claimed to have affected mortality rates at all in 1992 and at most weakly in 1993.”

Unfortunately for this argument, privatization began well before December 1992. Elements of capitalism were introduced into the economy of the Soviet Union as early as 1987, following the uneven adoption of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Law on State Enterprises, the net result of which was to impose wage cuts and other measures of market discipline on workers but not on managements or bureaucracies. A series of liberalization measures in the following years, including a 1990 law that institutionalized privatization, caused more job insecurity and increased shortages, unraveled the dense network of threads that bound together the Soviet system and cut the social safety net.

Moreover, shock therapy was implemented on the second day following the end of the Soviet Union — January 2, 1992 — with complete liberation of prices (except for energy), the concomitant ending of all subsidies of consumer products and for industry, and allowing the ruble to float against international currencies instead of having a fixed exchange rate. This was a strategy to reduce demand significantly, a devastating hardship considering that most products were in short supply already, and it would also lead to hyper-inflation, wiping out savings.

Privatizations and takeovers had already begun; that the government’s formal program, in which enterprises would be sold off at minuscule fractions of their value, did not start until months later is no argument that shock therapy was not already well under way.

The counter-study authors led by Professor Gerry goes so far as to conclude:

“If anything, there may be some evidence of a positive link between market reforms and health outcomes.”

Poverty, alcoholism and sexism as health indicators

The preceding statement seems to be based more on ideology than facts. By the end of 1998, Russia’s economy had contracted by an astonishing 45 percent. The World Bank — a powerful institution of the advanced capitalist countries — estimated that 74 million Russians were living poverty by then, as opposed to two million in 1989. Russia’s murder rate become one of the world’s highest. During Soviet times, we were assured by Western commentators that high levels of alcoholism were a sign of despair, yet alcohol per-capita consumption rates in 2007 were three times that of 1990. The toll on health from these factors can’t be separated from “market reforms.”

The breakdown of a society under the sudden onslaught of unbridled capitalism, neoliberal style, is exemplified in a study by University of Rhode Island Professor Donna M. Hughes, “Supplying Women for the Sex Industry: Trafficking from the Russian Federation,” in which she demonstrated how unemployment, skyrocketing levels of violence at the hands of male partners, the elimination of the Soviet-era social safety net, the pervasiveness of organized crime, and ubiquitous television and other mass media images glamorizing prostitution and the consumption of the rich of the West resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian women trafficked into prostitution. Professor Hughes also noted the dramatic social shifts unleashed:

“A much reported 1997 survey of 15-year-old schoolgirls found that 70 percent of schoolgirls said they wanted to be prostitutes. Ten years before, 70 percent said they wanted to be cosmonauts, doctors, or teachers. Some people have claimed this finding is an indication of the decline in moral standards or the social acceptability of prostitution. This finding is more likely an indication of how the media has glamorized and romanticized prostitution.” [page 14]

The point here isn’t to suggest that the Soviet Union was some sort of paradise. It was far from that. But it is necessary to challenge assumptions, particularly when when those assumptions rest on ideological foundations. How could the larger social disintegration documented in Professor Hughes’ study, and other indications, not be indicative of a decline in health and well-being?

If market forces improve health outcomes as Professor Gerry believes, then we need only compare the country in which market forces drive health care more than anywhere else, the United States, with other countries. In an average year, 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance, while the U.S. is well below average in life expectancy and infant mortality in comparison to other developed countries. And the U.S. spends, by far, the most money on health care of any country.

When “market forces” are allowed to govern health care, then the result is that the system will be geared toward maximizing corporate profit, not providing health care. When society — social bonds — break down, we are reduced to a scramble for survival.

Surely there is an alternative. Crises are overcome with cooperation, not competition. Future alternatives won’t be anything like the Soviet Union, but the number of people newly open to socialism is a sign of the open-mindedness, and strong societies, the world needs.