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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Logic of Gain

Novaya Gazeta recently published material that in any European country would elicit a deep political crisis. But in this country, the Oct. 5 piece was just another article whose political significance went almost unnoticed. It didn’t even become a sensation or topic for further discussion by the media. We’re talking here about none other than the delivery of Russian military equipment to South Africa during the period of apartheid.

According to Novaya Gazeta, in 1991-93 the government organized the transfer to the South African state defense corporation Armscor aviation equipment worth $80 million, to be used for modernizing Mirage planes for the defense of the apartheid regime. In other words, at a time when United Nations’ sanctions forbade the delivery of such military equipment to South Africa, the higher-ups in the Russian government, with the personal approval of then-President Boris Yeltsin, sent plane engines and military rockets to South Africa ostensibly for "technical experiments." And since government structures couldn’t work directly with the South African government, they operated through the firm Marvol Management Ltd. The military equipment was sent to Africa — and never returned. The Russian state lost $80 million — and the equipment deliverers pocketed the money for their services.

The real scandal in the wake of the Oct. 5 Novaya Gazeta article about contraband arms shipments is that there is no scandal.

The history of post-Soviet Russia is full of such incidences. Theft is not just a part of its administrative and political life; it is its goal, its essence, almost its raison d’?tre. But this incident goes totally beyond the usual bounds of pilfering from state coffers and technologies.

What is truly amazing is that even Stanislav Sumskoi, author of the article, sees here nothing other than run-of-the-mill theft. He is bothered by the theft and by the fact that secret military hardware was sent abroad even though its export was forbidden. He also points to the authorities’ crude flouting of the laws of their own land. But the main point here is not the theft, but that the Russian authorities perfectly consciously violated the UN sanctions (which Russia had publicly supported), that our government assisted the military machine of a racist regime. One gets the impression that in today’s Russia, everything comes down to the bottom dollar — bottom ruble — and that no one is capable of seeing a moral or political problem.

Explaining this history in terms of the incompetence of the Kremlin leadership of that period is pointless. In the first place, incompetence is never a justification. In the second place, it is clear from the supporting documents Sumskoi presents that this deal went through with the full knowledge of the Russian authorities. In response to the proposal of working out a military partnership with South Africa, Yeltsin introduced a resolution: "To work energetically, but carefully, considering the development of the internal situation in South Africa and the [UN] sanctions. Not to give an opportunity for [us to be] accused of violating the sanctions." Those in Moscow knew exactly what they were doing.

Theoretically, it would be possible to justify the position of the authorities, if not formally and legally, then at least from the political point of view that, in South Africa in the early 1990s, there were movements afoot toward democracy. But in 1992, the question of general elections was still up in the air, and delivery of arms to the regime was actually a factor in preventing its move toward democracy.

Worse yet, Sergei Chemezov, general director of Promexport, in speaking to the press about the development of trade with South Africa, noted that the coming to power of the black majority would put the brakes on military cooperation. In other words, hopes were placed on the white-minority regime because it would be easier to engage in "possible military cooperation"! After the lifting of sanctions, South Africa’s military structures could renew their relationship with traditional Western partners — and Russian contraband shipments would no longer be needed.

The political meaning of the actions of the Russian leadership was a violation of sanctions — nothing else. It’s telling that no one even thinks of negating the actual fact of the deal; no one denies the legitimacy of the documents published in Novaya Gazeta. They’re only arguing about whether the deal was advantageous, and to what degree there was theft on the Russian side.

Documents show that the authorities understood that their actions conflicted with international norms, but they went forward with the plan. It’s hard to know what inspired the Kremlin: a desire to make money from a contraband shipment of military hardware, or ideological solidarity with the apartheid regime.

What followed was understandable. In trying to keep the matter quiet, the government had to entrust the deal to a shady middleman, which then got the better of inexperienced Muscovite bureaucrats.

This story is coming to light only after all the main players have retired. Yeltsin has full amnesty for past actions. And the new president answers only for the period he has held office since the March election. In a similar circumstance in the United States, articles about secret deals between the U.S. leadership and Iran became a huge political scandal, causing people to mistrust both Ronald Reagan and the entire Republican administration.

But in Russia, there’s no scandal. That, in itself, is the biggest scandal. Not only the authorities, but even its critics, are no longer capable of thinking along generally accepted moral lines. Duty, honor, responsibility — they all yield to the logic of gain.

Many say they find national humiliation in the fact that we can’t finish up the genocide of a small people in the northern Caucasus. But almost no one sees national disgrace in our country’s delivering military equipment to South African racists.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a sociologist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. Novaya Gazeta