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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #31

    Letter From the Editors: July 27-Aug. 2, 2015

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    Issue #31 Letter From the Editors
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    It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s the Compulsion to Play the Game


    This twisted take on a familiar sports expression might describe the position of the Russian opposition as regional elections draw near. Several major nonestablishment forces – Aleksei Navalny’s Party of Progress, as well as the Republican Party of Russia and the People’s Freedom Party – have formed the impressive-sounding Democratic Coalition, but the group has faced repeated obstacles to getting on the ballot in many cities – from invalidated signatures to confiscated papers to criminal charges. But do these tactics signify real antipathy on the part of the Russian authorities, or (as Gleb Pavlovsky contends) are such moves part of a game among local elites vying to show off reactionary antics for the Kremlin?

    Or is this an even bigger game, one rigged at the very top? Oleg Kashin cautions readers not to misinterpret the federal authorities’ attitude toward dissenters: “If they wanted to stifle the opposition, they would do it. If they were scared, they would have started shooting long ago. In any case, there’s no such animal in Russian politics that we could unreservedly call an opposition. There are only people who for some reason take part in a series of predictable defeats.” Even so, he says, it’s better to think of Navalny & Co. as naïve dimwits than Kremlin collaborators.

    Speaking of collaboration: That’s just what some dissident Belarussian politicians are being accused of – by their fellow oppositionists. Unlike their Russian counterparts, they have not formed a like-minded coalition. In the absence of that leverage, some opposition leaders are urging colleagues to withdraw from the race, as their participation in it would help legitimize the ruling authorities. NG’s Anton Khodasevich comments: “Judging by the most recent statements, the confrontation could create a permanent rift in the camp of President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s opponents.” He quotes some especially biting remarks from firebrand journalist Irina Khalip: “[Longtime dissident] Anatoly Lebedko is dragging dead bodies from the crypt to help Aleksandr Lukashenko gain legitimacy and to get the world to recognize***the results of an ‘election,’ ” Apparently, she and others don’t want any part in a game with a predetermined outcome.

    In the international arena, Leonid Radzikhovsky also invokes the image of a game when analyzing mutual recriminations being made by Russian and American senior officials: Moscow says American policy is bent on regime change, while Washington says that Russia is the main threat to US national security. All of this rhetoric kindles an attitude of war – but, Radzikhovsky argues, that’s where the fun comes in. “Actually, freaking out about war***is more about getting a kick, a rush, than anything else. Deep down, everyone understands that no matter how much you scare yourself and others, this is nothing more than psychological games. That’s why we get such a thrill out of them.”

    Could that also be the impulse behind Russia’s new amendments to its Naval Doctrine? Suddenly, Moscow is emphasizing the importance of “blue water operations” – i.e., naval activity on the high seas, far away from home. According to military expert Maksim Shepovalenko, the Russian Navy’s balanced global posture is being replaced by a biased one that is “assertive in the West [Atlantic Ocean] and in the North, and cooperative in the East and the South,” allowing for greater coordination with the Chinese and Indian Navies. Meanwhile, it just so happens that the US recently revised its own Naval Doctrine to concentrate up to 60% of its forward-deployed warships and aircraft in the “Indo-Asia-Pacific Region.” At the same time, NATO continues efforts to expand eastward. And let’s not forget China, either: Shortly after the publication of Washington’s Naval Doctrine, Beijing published a white paper this spring expressing concern about increased US presence in the East China Sea and South China Sea. We can’t help wondering: If this is all a game, who will make the next move, and what will it be?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #7

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 10-16, 2014

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    Issue #7 Letter From the Editors
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    How to Lose Friends and Alienate Allies; and Would a Party by Any Other Name Sound as Sweet?

    No peace and harmony in the news this week as power struggles, turf wars and infighting erupt across the pages of the Digest. On the domestic front, Russia’s Prosecutor General Yury Chaika submitted a proposal to the State Duma to limit the powers of the Russian Investigative Committee – and give his agency the right to investigate the investigators. The official reason given is the IC’s penchant for illegally prosecuting Russian citizens – roughly 14,000 have faced unjust persecution over the last three years, Chaika laments. But some experts believe the real motive is Chaika’s ongoing rivalry with IC head Aleksandr Bastrykin. The two have been at loggerheads ever since the IC acquired independence from the prosecution system. And it’s not like the prosecution system (or the courts, for that matter) are any less guilty of unjust prosecution, says expert Aleksei Mukhin.

    There was no love lost between the leaders of the Republican Party of Russia/People’s Freedom Party. The coalition essentially ceased to exist this week after one of its leaders, Vladimir Ryzhkov, left the party. Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov, his onetime allies, accused Ryzhkov of cozying up to the authorities, writes Novaya gazeta. Ryzhkov, in turn, accused Nemtsov and Kasyanov of violating the party’s bylaws and leaving him out of the decision-making process.

    Does the demise of RPR/PFP give more elbow room to Navalny’s newly renamed Party of Progress? Politicians and commentators are wondering if the party’s new name (formerly the People’s Alliance party) will spook the more conservative part of the electorate, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. While the word “progress” speaks to Russia’s more liberal establishment, it may be a turn-off to those in favor of guaranteed “stability” and other more populist measures.

    Disagreements also continue to plague the Ukrainian opposition. As the Supreme Rada searches for a possible resolution to the crisis, the radical opposition has threatened that it does not intend to sit around and wait. Instead, it plans to seize strategic infrastructure such as gas pipelines to make the EU and Russia more agreeable at the negotiating table, Nezavisimaya gazeta writes. But instead of a unified front, the EU and Russia only seem to be drifting farther apart on Ukraine – or at least according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who penned an angry missive in Kommersant this week, accusing the EU of holding an all-or-nothing approach that only fuels the crisis. The Russian official states that the EU needs to figure out if it wants a true partnership with Russia, or continued petty antagonism.

    And while such remarks from official Moscow may not have been all that pleasant for Brussels to hear, at least they weren’t an expletive-laden dismissal of EU foreign policy from a top ally – the US. In a wiretapped conversation with the US ambassador in Kiev, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland didn’t pull any punches – “Fuck the EU,” the US diplomat exclaimed. The remark sparked outrage among European officials and further strained the already-tense US-EU relations. Looks like the work of WikiLeaks and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is alive and well, says Kommersant’s Sergei Strokan. Hard to argue with that.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #33

    Letter From the Editors: August 12-18, 2013

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    Issue #33 Letter From the Editors
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    This week, US President Barack Obama fired two political shots heard around the world. First, he cancelled his one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin scheduled for early September. This was the first such diplomatic slap since 1960, when Eisenhower cancelled a meeting with Khrushchev. But Obama did Eisenhower one better. He insulted the Russian president by saying: “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” In context, this remark was a preface to a larger point: “But the truth is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.” Nevertheless, the Russian press (and its counterparts across the globe) seized on the “bored kid” remark.

    While the immediate stimulus for these “shots” was Russia’s offer of asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, most commentators agree that relations between the two countries have been strained for many months, in the aftermath of the 2009-2010 “reset.” Igor Ivanov says dialogue between the US and Russia is more crucial than ever, so the nations must “turn the page” to overcome the legacy of the cold war and build a solid foundation for bilateral relations. However, Fyodor Lukyanov suggests that, given Moscow’s indifferent reaction to Washington’s recent arms reduction overtures, the two superpowers are no longer the be-all and end-all of global stability: The seesaw of power is now a triangle, which includes China.

    The seesaw of power in Moscow is taking on quite a different dynamic. Front-running mayoral candidate Sergei Sobyanin refuses to debate publicly with oppositionist Aleksei Navalny; meanwhile, the authorities are persecuting Navalny over foreign campaign funding and raiding his apartment. In Vladimir Pastukhov’s view, now that Navalny has galvanized Russia’s opposition-minded population, he has “won” no matter what. He is like a computer bug that has caused the entire system to crash.

    In other Russian News, the Duma’s anti-gay legislation continues to have international reverberations. Most recently, actor/writer Stephen Fry has called for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. This move ties in with observations that Putin is becoming more isolated: Rumors are afoot that the president is preparing to form an elite guard, which Andrei Kolesnikov compares to that of a medieval pope. In the economic realm, Sergei Aleksashenko and Semyon Novoprudsky agree that the Russian cabinet of ministers is painting an overly optimistic picture of economic growth – and even the “retouched” picture doesn’t look too rosy.

    This may be why Moscow is suddenly clamping down on imports from Ukraine (a plethora of products from chocolate to grain to steel) – to prop up Russia’s domestic economy. But experts in both countries see this move as more geopolitical in scope: As Ukraine prepares to sign an association agreement with the European Union, the import ban could be a last-ditch effort to push Ukraine to join the Russia-led Customs Union.

    Russia’s own export future has been threatened by an explosion and fire aboard a submarine that Russia built and sold to the Indian Navy. Konstantin Volkov sees this as a factor leading New Delhi to turn to the West for military technology. Meanwhile, Vasily Kashin reports that Moscow has unwittingly been exporting a less tangible commodity abroad: Chinese media outlets have unleashed a fusillade of propaganda portraying the fall of the USSR as a cautionary tale of the “horrors of democracy.” The scary thing, says Kashin, is that the Chinese commentators didn’t make anything up: They got their statistics of economic instability and demographic decline directly from the Russian media! Moreover, the same facts are being used to support the divergent views of Russian Westernizers and Communists alike. Even the Kremlin is using them to scare the population about the perils of regime change. Apparently, when it comes to spin doctoring, Putin is no slouch.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #21

    Letter From the Editors: May 18-24, 2015

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    Issue #21 Letter From the Editors
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    Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: Ukraine Finds Its Propaganda Trump Card, the Russian Elite Find Themselves in a Quandary

    Sometimes life really does imitate art, since many of the events happening this week in Russia and the near abroad could have come right off the page of a cheap spy novel. As the Ukraine crisis continues to spin its wheels with no solution in sight, Kiev has reported a media sensation: the capture of two Russian alleged GRU (Chief Intelligence Administration) agents. During questioning, the two captives said they are soldiers in the Russian Army sent to do “surveillance.” Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that they are no longer part of the Russian Armed Forces. Not surprising, writes Mikhail Tishchenko: Since Moscow has been adamant that there are no regular Russian Army troops in Ukraine, it can’t exactly admit the two men are on active duty.

    And this is something the Ukrainian side plans to use to its advantage: The message to Russian soldiers and volunteers joining the Donetsk Basin separatists is that the Kremlin abandons its own. Will this demoralization factor have an effect on the conflict?

    This concept is also food for thought when it comes to the Russian elite. In his article, the country’s most famous exiled economist, Sergei Guriyev, says the Russian economic forecast does not look good. What’s more, while the people may still be buying into the siege mentality and blaming the crisis on external forces, the elite know better. But since they have been painted into a corner by the Putin regime and often have conflicting interests, there’s no easy way out.

    One strategy, Guriyev writes, is to remain loyal to the regime, reap as many dividends as you can – and then? In the words of Madame Pompadour, “après moi le déluge.” The segment of the elite that isn’t interested in the “come what may” strategy can either join the opposition (pointless and dangerous), or leave. Guriyev cites Mancur Olson, who said that in certain situations, “the actions of each individual member of a group in his/her own interests cause the group as a whole (and each of its members) to lose.” So for now, the various clans within the elite are taking a wait-and-see approach.

    But it looks like the Kremlin is worried that this won’t be enough to dissuade regime opponents from consolidating. How else to explain a recent law on “undesirable organizations” just approved by the Duma, wonders Tatyana Stanovaya. It seems that the controversial law on foreign agents is not enough, since certain organizations – like Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia project – aren’t really subject to the “foreign agent” law. Then there’s popular opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who clearly isn’t into loyalty or leaving the country. Perhaps the Kremlin fears that Khodorkovsky and Navalny will join forces, and then who knows what could happen? The Bolotnaya Square protests clearly made an impression on Putin.

    Finally, certain commentators are also worried that the protests in Macedonia are also the work of devious external forces. Russian Public Chamber member Sergei Markov writes that the wave of protests in this Balkan nation is essentially the work of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, which is in cahoots with the NSA. Apparently, Germany has wanted a foothold in the Balkans since the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm, and this may be yet another attempt to make inroads by installing a puppet regime in Skopje. Plus there’s an added bonus: giving Greece’s left-wing government (and Hungary’s right-wing one) a good scare, writes Markov. Still not enough plot twists? The Russian official also cites the possibility of an Albanian plot: “Many Albanian leaders are promoting the concept of a greater Albania, which would be comprised of Albania, Kosovo, and parts of Serbia, Macedonia and Greece.John le Carré, eat your heart out!

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-3

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-18, 2015

    The French unite in the face of Charlie Hebdo attacks; and are things looking up for Navalny?

    For those hoping that 2015 would be the calm after the storm, expectations did not turn into reality as the clock struck midnight. The brazen attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, a Paris satirical magazine famous for its controversial religious cartoons, shocked France and the world. The reaction in Russia shows a deepening rift in society, writes the Moscow Times. While many flocked to the French Embassy in Moscow to express their condolences, Russian Orthodox activists also rallied outside the embassy, saying the magazine brought this tragedy upon itself with its disrespect of religious believers. Russia’s Council of Muftis condemned the attack, but suggested the massacre had been prompted by the publication’s “sin of provocation.”

    Surprisingly, this view was somewhat upheld by Novaya gazeta editor in chief Dmitry Muratov, who said in his op-ed piece that by alienating believers, we are essentially playing into the hands of terrorists whose goal is to incite interreligious hatred.

    Columnist Tatyana Stanovaya saw a different phenomenon in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks – namely, French society’s amazing ability to consolidate across political divides to defend shared values. Conversely, tragedies tend to divide rather than unite Russian society, as the sad experience of Beslan and Nord-Ost has demonstrated.

    Continuing a rather negative trend in the new year, the simmering conflict in Ukraine shows no sign of abating, and according to polls conducted by Deloitte, Ukrainians are not optimistic about the coming year: Only 18% of those polled expressed hope that things will improve in 2015, while 48% worried about a worsening economic situation. Just when you thought tensions couldn’t get any higher, 12 people were killed as a result of a passenger bus attack in Donetsk Basin. Both Ukrainian President Poroshenko and the US State Department laid blame squarely at the separatists’ door (although, as the author of the piece notes, Poroshenko was careful not to utter the word “Russia” in his televised address).

    As another round of mobilization looms in Ukraine, the Supreme Rada decided to resort to extreme measures to staunch any possible protests – anyone who speaks out against said mobilization should be considered a “Kremlin agent,” said National Security and Defense Secretary Aleksandr Turchinov.

    Meanwhile, the separatists seem to be a living example of the saying: “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” According to Slon.ru, the death of notorious separatist leader Batman (aka Aleksandr Bednov), who was killed when his car was shelled in an ambush, shows that the Lugansk people’s republic isn’t big enough for the separatist commanders’ egos. The main rift is between the Don Cossacks, led by Hetman Nikolai Kozitsyn, and LPR “people’s governor” Igor Plotnitsky. As Kiev steps up its blockade of the region and Moscow clearly shows no interest in recognizing the LPR’s independence, will Novorossia actually be brought down from within?

    Meanwhile, on the home front, opposition darling Aleksei Navalny and his brother Oleg were sentenced for supposedly defrauding Russia’s branch of Yves Rocher and another company out of millions of rubles. Navalny’s lawyer said that the “scheme” the prosecution describes is nothing but a standard business practice, calling the trial politically motivated. In his closing speech, Navalny told the judges, prosecutors and basically Russia’s entire law-enforcement cartel to stop averting their gaze and look truth in the eye: “The only thing that matters in life is when you do the right thing, when you don’t have to stare at your desk, when you can just look the other person in the eye, when you can look up.” A powerful message, but will it be heard?

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #38

    Letter From the Editors: September 16-22, 2013

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    Polar Explorations – Why Talk Is Cheap

    These days, it seems international affairs experts can’t get their minds off the world’s polarity. And no, it is not geomagnetism that is suddenly in vogue these days. While the fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic field certainly are of interest to certain science types, it is the fluctuations in the power and clout of the world’s key players that have Russian commentators commenting and observers observing in this week’s issue of the Current Digest.

    Ever since Russia proposed its solution to the Syria stalemate and The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Vladimir Putin criticizing American “exceptionalism,” analysts have been trying to tally up the points to see who’s ahead – Obama or Putin; the US or Russia? How has the balance of power shifted in international politics as a result of quibbling over Syria? Which country is exerting more pull? Is today’s world becoming more unipolar, bipolar or multipolar as a result? Those issues are addressed in this issue’s two featured news stories: The first set of articles explores developments in the wake of demands that Syria turn over its chemical weapons, while the second set looks at China’s role in the US-Russia-China power triangle. Those questions are also touched on in this issue’s International Affairs article, which looks at the role (increasingly irrelevant, according to Vardan Bagdasaryan) of the UN in the context of emerging geopolitical realities and shifting polarities.

    Geopolitical polarity is certainly not a new topic in the CIS. Ukraine recently shifted its alignment by signing an association agreement with the European Union. That step decidedly moves it away from the Russian pole and toward the EU pole. However, the move is also polarizing Ukrainian society. Opponents of the agreement are criticizing the government for acting without the public’s input.

    Meanwhile, in Russia, Civic Platform leader and erstwhile oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov is advocating for greater polarity in the Russian political system following the recent regional elections there. He wants his party to become one of two major rival parties in a two-party Russian political system. Yabloko party member Grigory Yavlinsky, in turn, offers his two kopeks on the recent elections and the phenomenon of Aleksei Navalny. And Vladimir Putin offers his take (I’ll let you decide the value of the Russian president’s words!) on the elections and other current topics at a gathering of the Valdai International Discussion Club. For some reason, the old adage “talk is cheap” suddenly comes to mind…

    One topic the Russian president didn’t mention was the Russian economy, which he undoubtedly had good reason to avoid. In their article, commentators Anastasia Bashkatova and Mikhail Sergeyev paint a dismal picture of the outlook for Russia’s economy, as well as the Russian government’s economic policies – which, as Andrei Kolesnikov writes in a separate article, are woefully lacking and misguided. Putin also omitted talking about the State Duma’s efforts to pass a law to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences – a law Andrei Babitsky describes as reestablishing the same flawed system but under government management. Andrei Kolesnikov says it is another example of Russian authorities eventually getting what they want. So, does that mean that if the Russian authorities really, truly wanted a viable rocket and space industry, Roskosmos could get a Proton-M rocket to launch successfully? Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin seems to have a plan to get the industry and Roskosmos off the ground, but – hmm – maybe that would require first reversing the polarity of the recent RAS reform?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #10

    Letter From the Editors: March 6-12, 2017

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    Issue #10 Letter From the Editors
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    Stinker Jailer Soldier Spy.

    Russia’s most famous muckraker has raised another stink in Russia after landing his biggest if not smelliest fish to date – the prime minister himself. Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Fund this week released the results of an investigation that meticulously documents Medvedev’s lavish lifestyle, which includes the regular use of luxurious mansions and lavish yachts gifted to the charitable foundations of Dmitry Medvedev’s friends. The revelations come as no surprise to Russians. Everyone knows this is how the system works, writes Andrei Kolesnikov: “The oligarchy supplies the needs and wants of the ruling authorities who, in turn, protect the oligarchy from interference.” Kirill Martynov facetiously pities Medvedev, who he says is forced to accept the obligatory trappings of power in Russia at a time when it is trendy for the rich and powerful in the Western world (at least in Silicon Valley, Medvedev’s Mount Zion) to eschew extravagance in favor of personal asceticism. Russia’s leaders have no choice, writes Kolesnikov: “Money and luxury serve as the lifeblood animating Russia’s body politic. [Navalny’s investigation] has revealed that leaders can never get enough, and that they will cling to power until their dying breath. Because losing office would literally mean losing everything.”

    But while the Russian leadership jealously guards its “everything,” it has no qualms about taking away ordinary Russians’ “everything” – just ask Sochi resident Oksana Sevastidi, who was given a seven-year prison sentence on high treason charges in 2016 for sending a couple of text messages to a friend in Georgia in 2008 about seeing military equipment on railcars. Russia’s propensity for jailing is well documented. But it seems that even Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Sevastidi’s sentence was a bit extreme. He has just pardoned her on “humanitarian principles.” Another Sochi resident, Yekaterina Kharebava, sentenced to serve six years in prison on espionage charges in 2014 for sending a similar text message, is still in prison. Can she expect similar “benevolence” from Russia’s supreme power-holder?

    And hold power he does. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin reminded us this week just how much military power Russia wields, in case those who say that Russia must be talked with from a position of strength (read: US Defense Secretary James Mattis) may have forgotten. NG writes that Russia has a “new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, which can outmaneuver all existing missile defense systems and put 10 [metric] tons of nuclear warheads on target anywhere in the world, with enough range to fly over either the North or South Pole.”

    But lest Russia be accused of saber-rattling, it has invited NATO and EU countries to take part in Moscow’s International Security Conference to shore up rapidly eroding trust and cooperation on security matters. The list of already scrapped and close-to-endangered security agreements is long and worrisome, writes Andrei Akulov. But he feels “the time is right to launch a meaningful and comprehensive discussion on a continental security order. Respect for each other’s views and interests is a prerequisite for success.”

    Unfortunately, it seems Russia does not necessarily respect Montenegro’s interest in pursuing closer integration with the EU and NATO. Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic this week announced that a prominent Russian spy, Col. Eduard Shishmakov, led the attempted plot to assassinate the pro-EU and pro-NATO Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic and overthrow the government on election day, Oct. 16, 2016. Russia quickly dismissed the astounding claim, but the new Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, says several NATO countries confirm Russia’s involvement in the coup attempt.

    Needless to say, this week’s news has all the drama of a John Le Carré novel.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #13

    Letter From the Editors: March 27-April 2, 2017

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    Issue #13 Letter From the Editors
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    Irate Putin Remonstrates; Europe’s Embattled Far Right Commiserates; Fed Up Russian, Belarussian Citizenry Demonstrates.

    Putin is sick and tired of being portrayed in the West as a bad boy and accused of foul play in last year’s US presidential election. He made that abundantly clear at the March 30 Arctic Forum, where he called the endless accusations against Russia groundless and expressed hope that Russian-US relations would normalize as soon as possible.

    Columnist Dmitry Minin says it is US Democrats who are pushing the Russian election interference allegations with a McCarthy-like vengeance, but ultimately to their own detriment. And, he says, the Republicans had better not succumb to the “myth of Russians’ almost intrinsic hostility to Americans or the unrelenting threat to America’s security supposedly emanating from Moscow,” if they know what is good for them.

    But the Russian witch hunt in US press and political circles shows no signs of abating, and Trump himself is showing more ambivalence – to put it mildly – toward the Putin regime. Be that as it may, Putin is still very much the darling of some European conservatives who are rallying behind him and what he stands for, ahead of forthcoming European national leadership elections. Many right-wing party leaders think Putin is getting too much of a bad rap from their leftist colleagues. NG writes: “Apparently, he is the embodiment of a strong leader who protects his country’s interests, opposes illegal immigration, supports traditional values and morals, and finally, fights liberalism.”

    At the Arctic Forum, CNBC journalist Geoff Cutmore pressed Putin on Russia’s human rights record – in particular, the detention of demonstrators. In response, Putin harped about Western double standards. Russia has quite a bit of experience dealing with protests. In fact, the weekend before the Arctic Forum, thousands of people took to the streets all across Russia to protest official corruption. The rallies seem to have caught the attention of Russian authorities. Several ranking Russian politicians proposed opening a corruption investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the main object of protesters’ wrath.

    The Russian authorities were seemingly nonplussed by the unauthorized rallies and chose to respond somewhat mildly, writes Tatyana Stanovaya: “In the past, the Kremlin referred to protesters as the fifth column and US State Department agents; now, all of a sudden, it has started calling them proactive citizens with whom the government should engage in dialogue.” The upcoming Russian presidential election may be prompting the authorities to tread lightly and take a softer approach to protests, but this is only a tactical maneuver and a PR stunt, Stanovaya warns.

    On the same weekend as the anticorruption protests in Russia, authorities in Belarus were confronting nationwide antigovernment protests of their own, and the official response there was much less ambiguous. After weeks of rising tension in over a number of unpopular government decisions, the Belarussian authorities finally came down hard on protesters who were planning to use the annual Freedom Day celebration to protest their current lack of freedoms. The police response was quick and massive. The rally organizers were arrested days ahead of the rally, and downtown Minsk was cordoned off so that protesters could not gather at the rally location and march down Independence Prospect as they had planned. And activists at the Vyasna human rights center were temporarily detained so that they could not witness the detentions of protesters in downtown Minsk.

    Columnist Irina Khalip writes that Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is at the end of his rope, and predicts Belarussian citizens are going to keep on protesting. Lukashenko, who had become somewhat less of a pariah to the West of late, might soon be redonning (or pulling down tighter) the hat of a dictator – but perhaps no longer as the last one in Europe. Depends on who you might ask.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #30

    Letter From the Editors: July 22-28, 2013

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    Issue #30 Letter From the Editors
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    There is a centuries-old Russian proverb that goes: Durakam zakon ne pisan. Literally, it means: “For fools, the law is not written.” But the way it’s used in Russian conversation is more to the effect of: “There’s no telling what a fool might do.” In summing up lessons learned from the Aleksei Navalny case – in which the anticorruption crusader was himself found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison – Semyon Novoprudsky changes the proverb’s beginning to dura lex (Latin for “harsh law”). In other words, there’s no telling what Russia’s Draconian justice system will do next. Granted, Navalny was greeted with a hero’s welcome in Moscow after he was unexpectedly released from prison (by petition of the prosecutors – go figure!), but expert opinions sharply differ on what’s in store for him next.

    Another controversial figure still in limbo on Russian soil is NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: After promising news that Russia’s Federal Migration Service would provide paperwork allowing Snowden to be released from the transit zone at Sheremetyevo airport, it turned out that his application for asylum is still being reviewed. In the meantime, however (says human rights expert Lilia Shevtsova), the whole situation is making the West look quite bad – the US for its across-the-board invasions of privacy, and several European countries for their apparent collusion. The only one who looks good right now is Russian President Vladimir Putin: He has the moral high ground, from which he can accuse the West of hypocrisy if it takes issue with his authoritarian policies.

    Putin’s apparent indulgence of Snowden is likely a welcome distraction from the domestic economic situation: The latest cabinet meeting featured a report from the Federal Antimonopoly Service showing that internal competition in Russia’s economy is flagging. So is GDP growth, according to the Economic Development Ministry.

    This grim news has not deterred the government from approving a targeted program to increase ethnic tolerance: 4.5 billion rubles is being allocated to improve the coexistence of nationalities within Russia by 2020. How will success be measured? Opinion polling. Experts are skeptical, needless to say. Andrei Kolesnikov and Nikolai Petrov lament (respectively) the lack of tolerance toward sexual minorities and the lack of a coherent strategy to integrate the North Caucasus into the fabric of Russian society. In contrast, Vedomosti editors cite “supercentralization” on the economic level: The federal center seems to step in whenever a regional problem arises (although Moscow often plays a role in creating those problems!). This view seems confirmed by a look ahead to the Sept. 8 “single day of voting,” where regional campaigns are being managed to create the look of fair competition.

    The electoral arena in Georgia showed a potentially promising development for Moscow, as the overtly anti-Russian presidential candidate Shota Malashkhia lost ground in the United National Movement primary to the more moderate David Bakradze. Meanwhile, Russia gets some praise from defense expert Viktor Litovkin for finding clever, self-sufficient ways to circumvent Ukraine’s attempts to extort money for the use of its naval facilities in the Crimea.

    A motif running through this week’s international commentary is coexistence. Aleksandr Zhebin envisions a day when North and South Korea will finally commemorate the Korean War with common understanding, while Veniamin Popov foresees continued swings of the pendulum in the Middle East between secularism and Islamism before balance is reached.

    Meanwhile, the infamous case of the poisoning of former KGB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko took a new turn, as the British government rejected a coroner’s request for a public inquiry into the murder, which might have revealed whether Putin was behind it. To paraphrase a proverb, “There’s no telling what the law might do.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #32

    Letter From the Editors: August 5-11, 2013

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    Issue #32 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #32 Table of Contents

    When BFFs Part Ways; Yanukovich Wrestles Ukrainian Tigers; Has Rogozin Used Up His 15 Minutes of Fame?

    How do you punish a frenemy? By blowing off your party invitation, according to US President Barack Obama. The White House announced this week that it was cancelling the US president’s Moscow meeting with President Putin slated for early September. The official reason given was “a lack of recent progress” in the bilateral agenda, but unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, it’s obvious that the reason is Edward Snowden. Of course, it was a pretty big snub on the part of the Russian authorities to grant the leaker asylum just weeks before Obama’s scheduled visit. Was Putin double-dog daring Obama to cancel his visit? Pretty much, according to the Moscow Times. But Russia’s repeated steps to alienate the US could relegate it to the periphery of international relations, as far as Washington is concerned. Meaning it’s President Putin who won’t be getting invited to the party.

    Speaking of yet another bilateral relations sore spot, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave an interview to Georgia’s Rustavi 2 television on the five-year anniversary of the five-day war with Georgia in August 2008. Once again raising the point that Russia had no choice but to intervene, Medvedev outlined a list of rules for Russia’s CIS partners to abide by if they want strong and secure relations with Moscow. The response that followed from Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on the very same television network sounded like a very ominous fortune cookie: Russia is in for an imminent and terrible end, much worse than that suffered by the USSR.

    In a possible sign of such an apocalypse, Russian entrepreneurs penned an online letter of support for Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny. A rare step for the Russian business community, which has learned the lessons of Yukos and usually doesn’t like to stick its neck out, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. But is Navalny on the level, the authors wonder? Or is he going to make lots of promises he can’t keep to the business community, only to revert to the present regime’s populist policies to appease the majority?

    Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who has the tiger by the tail in the form of jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, is also in a political quandary. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, if he keeps her in prison, he’s all but guaranteed a win in the 2015 presidential election – but the long-anticipated association agreement with the EU is then on the line. If he lets the braided genie out of the bottle, her popularity and ambition may cost him the presidency. Not an easy position to find yourself in.

    You wouldn’t want to be in Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s shoes this week, either. The firebrand politician who oversees the military-industrial sector berated Russian Federal Space Agency head Vladimir Popovkin this week for yet another Proton-M rocket launch disaster, and made a controversial suggestion – to combine the space and aviation industries. Is this an act of desperation, wonders Viktor Myasnikov, or is Rogozin self-promoting again? Apparently, the deputy PM’s constant quest for publicity is starting to irritate Putin, who said in a meeting that Rogozin is competing for air time with talk shows, and can’t carry on a conversation without TV cameras around. Is this the beginning of the end for the politician who was once thought of as Putin’s successor?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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