Russia: Interview with Jesse Heath of The Russia Monitor

Jesse Heath is an American lawyer based in Washington, D.C. His blog, The Russia Monitor, addresses developments in Russian law, economics, and politics. As an Anglophone blogger writing about Russia, Heath's work is distinct for its detailed focus on technical aspects of issues large and small. For example, he is one of few in the English-speaking ‘citizen media’ to have analyzed [en] reforms to Russia's strategic sectors laws, and his commentary on Vladimir Putin's pre-reelection political maneuvering garnered the attention [ru] of well-known Russian author and archivist Vladimir Pribylovsky [en].

On June 18, Global Voices’ RuNet Echo spoke with Heath by telephone, to learn more about his history as a blogger and his contributions to the RuNet.

Jesse Heath, creator of The Russia Monitor. Photograph by JH, used with permission.

Global Voices (GV): You're a lawyer by trade, and yet you have this blog, where you often write about sensitive issues involving corruption and various legal nuances. What drove you to begin blogging, given your profession?

Jesse Heath (JH): Actually, I created it in 2007, before I was technically in my profession, when I was still a law student. Ultimately, I obviously cover subjects that I'm not work on directly. Generally, I base my blogging on what's in the news, either in the U.S. or in Russia, and offer my own take on it. So, even though it's sometimes sensitive, it never relates to anything on which I'm directly working, and it doesn't pose any problems in that way. Most of what I write is based on my general understanding of corruption in Russia (often founded on my professional experience or research), but a lot of it is widely known in my practice area.

GV: Why, when you were in law school, did you decide to start a blog in the first place?

JH: My first job after Year One of law school was at the Supreme Court, which sounds very impressive, but didn't involve any writing. So I wanted to do something that would continue my writing and force me to keep up to date on what's going on in Russia, and this seemed like the logical step.

GV: And do you have contact now with other bloggers or people outside the mainstream media? Being a blogger, you're not quite a journalist — you're somehow not exactly ‘official.’ With whom do you find yourself in communication?

JH: The English-speaking community of bloggers who write about Russia is relatively small, so we kind of all know each other. I've met a lot of them — in fact, some of them are also lawyers. I haven't really met many ‘official’ journalists, though I certainly know who they are, and of course we see each other on Twitter, but I haven't personally gotten to know many of them.

GV: Do you find that your blogger persona is something of an alter ego? Or do you find that you interact with people in the ‘real world’ as the author of The Russia Monitor? Or is blogging something that you retreat to and write from in isolation?

JH: For me, it's not an alter ego. I've met people (for instance, at various conferences through work) who read the blog, but didn't know that I am the author.

GV: And what sense do you get about who is reading you, and how are they reading your blog?

JH: I think it's often other lawyers, given a lot of the legal issues that I've covered. For example, I wrote about the strategic sectors law, which regulates investment in the defense sector and elsewhere. Now, not a lot of people (as you can imagine) are blogging about this specific set of laws, and I know that there's a lot more traffic when I write such a post. It could be investors in Russia who want to try their best to keep up to date on regulations (in the minerals sector, for example); it could be other lawyers; and also there are government people. I don't have precise analytics now, since switching from Blogger to WordPress, but I used to track readers originating at the [U.S.] State Department and so on. It's basically this small community that is active in Russia professionally that goes and reads The Russia Monitor. I assume that I don't generate a lot of interest from people who aren't professionally involved in Russia.

GV: And is that because what you're usually dealing with is too dry for the ‘uninitiated’ and the ‘novices'?

JH: Well, I think it's just not as sensationalist as some other blogs or news sources. There's plenty to be sensationalist about in Russia, whether it's the protests or U.S.-Russia relations. I do cover these issues, but — as you say — usually from a ‘drier’ perspective.

GV: And if sensationalism is the prevailing focus and atmosphere of most writing about Russia, what are some of the issues about which readers don't know enough? Of the things that require more technical or professional expertise to understand, what could readers learn from a blog like The Russia Monitor that they don't already know from more typical blogs?

JH: Aside from my post about the strategic sectors law, I don't think my coverage is particularly unique. There are others covering the economy, for example. Now, it's easy to say of Russia, “Oh, they rely on oil,” and make that kind of ‘bumper sticker’ statement. But I do think I've spent a bit more time than most other bloggers picking apart that dependency, and showing what a truly negative influence it has on Russia's economy, as well as engaging the counter arguments about ‘consumption versus growth.’ The information, though, is out there, obviously. You can find it in World Bank sources or local/domestic Russian sources. There are other blogs, of course, for instance Streetwise Professor [en], who doesn't cover Russia exclusively, but once in a while, he'll write a post picking apart Russia's economy, and it's pretty good.

I'd add that I think the approach to corruption in Russia has gotten better because of folks like Aleksey Navalny and others, who are making it a top-level issue. But in the end, everyone wants to do the stories that repeat various rumors about Putin's involvement in corruption — some of which may be true, though we don't know for certain. We're dealing with rumors, after all. What they don't look at are the more pernicious and widespread forms of corruption that Americans and American companies have to face when they want to do business there, and that ordinary Russians have to face on a daily basis. Everyone wants the headline-grabbing story, which is only natural, but I think people could understand the role of corruption in a country like Russia (and how bad it really is) if they realize that it isn't just the President taking bribes. I'm talking about the low-level, day-to-day stuff ingrained in the culture.

GV: What's one example of this ‘low-level’ corruption that demonstrates something readers don't see in ‘headlining’ material?

JH: Well, consider the process of getting a building permit in Russia. It takes over a year just to get the permits to build something. If you visit the World Bank's website, you can see a list of each step that's required in this process, and each requires a different interaction with a different agency that has its own discretion about whether or not to issue its approval in the ultimate procedure of obtaining permission. What I mean by ‘discretion’ is that it's unspecified if an agency waits thirty days, for instance, before issuing its decision, or does it just review someone's plans and decide in only a few days? This applies to someone who's trying to build a dacha, as well as a company that wants to build a new store or a new factory. They basically have to go through a process where — if you want to be competitive and efficient — there is always an option to make small bribe payments and facilitate everything more quickly. If you wanted to do it the more ethical way, you're put at a disadvantage.

Now, this is rather boring stuff, right? After all, we're talking about building permits, but this is what ordinary Russians have to face on a day-to-day basis. I wish that there would be a little more exploration of this. When you look at the anger on the street, it's not because Putin has a resort or a palace on the Black Sea — it's really these day-to-day pressures on living one's life and obstacles to developing one's business or home. It's these limitations that drive the anger we're now seeing nationwide.

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