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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #4

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 19-25, 2015

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    Issue #4 Letter From the Editors
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    On Sherpas and Surety: We Get By With a Little Help From Our Friends


    Some say that the first person to reach the top of Mount Everest was not renowned New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary, but his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. The two men chose to share credit for the feat, but one thing we do know is that Norgay was the more experienced climber. In like manner, Ukraine is now being assisted in its arduous climb to the European Union by Poland – a country that knows how to weather the tough climate of reforms to meet EU standards.

    Another attempt at steering Ukraine toward stabilization was made by US financier George Soros, who visited Kiev Jan. 11 to dish out economic advice; he previously wrote an article persuading Europe to provide more financial assistance. Meanwhile, France and Germany continue their efforts at guiding Ukraine and Russia toward resolving the Donetsk Basin conflict, as terrorist acts continue to spread beyond the separatist regions to Kharkov, Odessa and elsewhere.

    In this issue’s second feature, which takes a deeper look at the inner workings and implications of this conflict, Aleksei Fenenko says that all of these attempts at third-party mediation – including the autumn talks in Minsk with OSCE representatives – have failed, and that Ukraine appears headed for a “frozen conflict.” In a more drastic vein, Fyodor Lukyanov says that geopolitical wrinkles like events in eastern Ukraine are incidental: The real problem is that the respective processes of Ukrainian and Russian self-determination are fundamentally at odds.

    Drawing a different kind of link between the domestic and the geopolitical, economist and Yabloko party founder Grigory Yavlinsky points out that Russia – like its predecessor, the Soviet Union – has consistently made overtures to the West when oil prices are low. “But as soon as oil prices go up, the leadership gets incredibly arrogant and narcissistic – it starts pursuing aggressive and reckless policies, both domestically and internationally, like there’s no tomorrow.” Financial expert Igor Nikolayev reminds us (in a Novaya gazeta interview) that when tomorrow comes, the people will remember their leaders’ past reckless decisions; he agrees with interviewer Aleksei Polukhin that Russia’s current domestic crisis is primarily a crisis of trust.

    And yet, trust in Putin was affirmed this week quite decisively by leaders of the North Caucasus republics at a meeting in Derbent: They issued a statement expressing unequivocal support for the Russian president’s domestic and foreign policies. Why? Political analyst Natalya Zubarevich says they are trying to save themselves from imminent nationwide spending cuts.

    How is Russia trying to save itself from its own political and economic troubles? By reaching out to countries that are not trying to steer Ukraine toward Europe – or anywhere else, for that matter. For example, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, relations with China are flourishing. And on Jan. 20, reports Viktor Myasnikov, Russia signed a bilateral military cooperation treaty with Iran. We all need friends to point us in the right direction, don’t we?

    Lost and Found in Translation. Continuing the theme of helpful companions, we almost decided in this issue’s first feature to call Warsaw “Kiev’s sherpa to the EU.” This unusual usage was an effort to translate Russian provodnik – which could refer to a number of facilitators in getting from Point A to Point B, from “conduit” and “conductor” to “steward” and even “proponent.” The mountaineer comparison would have been apt, but the trouble was that “sherpa” is already a term of art in the diplomatic world: meaning the personal representative of a head of state who prepares for an international summit. Since Ukraine’s integration into the EU would involve a broader, more multifaceted process, a more general term was called for – so we stayed on the safer side of the mountain with “guide.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #24-25

    Letter From the Editors: June 13-26, 2016

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    Brexit, Foreign Investment, Russian Elections and NATO: What’s All This Got to Do With Fridges?


    This week’s letter starts with a confession: One of the Current Digest’s translators, who shall remain nameless, took a sharp semantic swerve by rendering the Russian kholodilnik (“refrigerator”) as “wallet.” What’s more, our editors (who, for better or worse, cannot remain nameless) liked the idea! Before readers start calling us incompetent – or using less printable epithets – let’s explain the context: Mikhail Khodorkovsky said in an interview with The New Times that “the stability of the proestablishment majority isn’t that strong. And when their refrigerators start talking, people need to understand that they have an alternative.” We changed the fridge phrase to “when their wallets are empty.” This decision was further justified by a later mention of the same household appliance, in which the interviewer talks about needing to survive “until, as you put it, the refrigerator starts shouting over the television.” Entertaining as the image was, we went with the phrase: “until . . . people start voting with their wallets.” These decisions were based on what translation theorists call “textual cohesion”: In other words, our primary concern was not the figurative images for their own sake, but the rhetorical strategy they were meant to accomplish.

    Speaking of a cohesive strategy, do Russia’s antiestablishment forces have one? This week’s lively interviews with Khodorkovsky and fellow oppositionist Aleksei Navalny leave that issue open to question. But when it comes to the Russian establishment, commentators cite a definite trend of rapprochement toward Europe that was observed at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Tatyana Stanovaya cites the government’s “liberal” strategies to increase Russia’s investment appeal; Anastasia Bashkatova argues that having failed in its “pivot to the East,” Russia is now turning again to the West; and Nikita Krichevsky ticks off statistics about new oil and gas contracts signed at the forum. However, Aleksandr Dudchak laments, Moscow’s foreign policy continues to be reactive – overly dependent on whatever steps Europe takes.

    The same can certainly not be said of Great Britain, which voted this week to withdraw from the EU. The results of this historic referendum seem to run contrary to Khodorkovsky’s remarks about economic concerns eventually precipitating changes in the status quo (not just in Russia, but in Europe). In fact, as Geoffrey Smith wrote in Fortune magazine the week before the vote, the tide of public opinion turned despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s doomsday forecasts of economic ruin that a “Brexit” would bring. Thus, the Brits decided not to listen to their wallets (or their fridges). Vladislav Inozemtsev sees a silver lining here: Now that the UK is out of the picture, the EU has a golden opportunity to reinvent itself as a more flexible yet more inclusive association that could expand all the way to Russia’s borders.

    If that idea sets off any alarm bells for Digest readers, then you can imagine how President Putin and his military advisers feel about it. Actually, you don’t have to imagine: Just read Pavel Felgengauer’s account of the Russian Defense Ministry’s paranoia: “[A] hotbed of threat has already emerged . . . and it is not confined to the Baltic. There is also the Donetsk Basin, the Crimea, the Black Sea, the Caucasus . . . and the Arctic, where, as the ice melts, all sorts of unpleasant encounters are bound to start at sea and in the air.” Or check out NG’s account of Putin’s speech at the State Duma, where he proposes to disband NATO. Talk about a chill in international relations! Must be that pesky fridge acting up again.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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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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    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 #22

    Letter From the Editors: May 26-June 1, 2014

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    Turn, Turn, Turn: The Season of a New President for Ukraine, New Strategic Directions for Russia

    As we look back over this week’s news, we see a persistent theme of allegiances. In the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, a clear majority declared allegiance to billionaire Pyotr Poroshenko. Or did they? Polina Khimshiashvili and Aleksei Nikolsky from Vedomosti report that many polling stations in eastern Ukraine did not even open on election day, and that barely one-third of those who did vote there favored Poroshenko. The new president’s own allegiances are a bit of a mystery as yet: While clearly welcomed by the West (US President Obama congratulated him on his victory even before all the votes were counted), Poroshenko in his first postelection press conference took pains to emphasize that he intends to grant a lot of autonomy to local governments (including those in separatist Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces) and to establish dialogue with Russia even after the bitterly disputed annexation of the Crimea.

    Meanwhile, Russia’s allegiance seems to be turning decisively toward China. Dmitry Minin, writing in the Strategic Culture Foundation Online Journal (a source that makes its Current Digest debut in this issue!), argues that the new agreement that Vladimir Putin signed with Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing in effect creates a military and political alliance between the two countries. In other words, it’s not all about gas and oil, as some have claimed.

    However, Fyodor Lukyanov cautions that Moscow should not put all of its eggs in the Beijing basket. True, United Europe has moved past its climax at the turn of the 21st century into an era of internal division and global insignificance. And yet Russia needs it now more than ever, like a beacon in a time of instability.

    In response, we could imagine Putin saying: Forget Europe – Eurasia is where it’s at! Indeed, a landmark treaty creating the Eurasian Economic Union was signed May 29 by founding members Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Viktoria Panfilova quotes Putin as saying there is much broader interest as well. “No wonder the world’s key economic players are showing great interest in this alliance. Every time I go somewhere and talk to somebody, they all want to know how to establish relations with the future Eurasian Union.”

    As for the Russian home front, Putin’s wide-ranging aspirations may be compromising long-standing allegiances between him and the rich and powerful cronies who brought him to power. Stanislav Belkovsky makes cogent arguments that conditions in Russia are ripe for a “palace coup,” as the Russian president’s latest empire-building ambitions expose his loyal elite to a new round of sanctions from the West and risk dragging the country into a recession. The big question is: If we have to disavow our allegiance to Putin, then who will be our next leader?

    Lost and Found in Translation. Belkovsky’s colorful commentary on Putin’s betrayal of the elite offered some opportunity to reflect on when an idiom is translatable and when it’s not. We decided that the expression vynosit sor is izby [literally, “carry trash out of the hut”] could be replaced with the more culturally familiar “air dirty laundry in public.” On the other hand, we felt we had to preserve verbatim the tongue-in-cheek editorial remark that Belkovsky makes to assure readers that he’s not advocating revolution: “We’re just fixing the primus stove.” Educated Russian readers recognize this phrase from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “Master and Margarita” as a disingenuous protestation of innocence. What character said it, and in what context? Turn to the Russian Federation section to find out!

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #17-18

    Letter From the Editors: April 20-May 3, 2015

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    Know Thy Enemy (and Thy Friend): Recovery, Détente and Protection in Russia and the CIS

    With Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2016, many of Kiev’s supporters in Europe are concerned that the reforms they have been pushing for will not happen quickly enough. The IMF and other funders have already stepped up to provide 30 billion euros to shore up the economy, but Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk is asking for more: “The best way to win the war against Russian-led aggression is to make Ukraine a success story – to make Ukraine an example for everyone.*** We are not simply asking for money, meaning more loans to repay the ones we already took out. That doesn’t work. The best ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine is investments.” Will the West buy into this idea, and what will it expect in return?

    As Kiev continues to play up the theme of Russian aggression, Moscow’s public messages have been more conciliatory of late. For example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a radio interview that Moscow is ready to cooperate with Washington on a common agenda, as long as the US does not dictate the terms. Putin said something similar last Saturday on a national news program. Vladimir Frolov compares this new foreign policy gesture to the Nixon-Brezhnev “détente.” However, he says, a key condition for Moscow is that the US stay out of Russia’s business (read: the entire post-Soviet space). “The problem with this proposal is that it comes from an alternate reality. No American president is going to have a discussion with Moscow about delineating spheres of influence.*** The time for such geopolitical deals is long gone, never to be seen again except on Russian TV.”

    Thus, the underlying message to the Russian public (and beyond) is that the West is an “enemy at the gates,” encroaching on the sovereignty of Russia. Moscow’s highest decision-makers have been sold on this idea, too: It is the cornerstone of the Defense Ministry’s 20-trillion ruble rearmament program. Yet, as Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin says in an interview with Novaya gazeta, NATO would never start a combat operation against nuclear-armed Russia, and Russia is now unlikely to send “polite little green men” anywhere else in Eastern Europe (as it did in the Crimea), since it is now facing sanctions and international isolation. So why is tension still escalating? Dvorkin ascribes this tendency to a “shared psychosis” between Russia and NATO, fed by the financial appetite of the defense industry complex.

    As an analogy to Russia’s public saber-rattling, Mikhail Fishman cites the rhetoric of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov – except that instead of being addressed to the West, it’s aimed straight at Moscow. Kadyrov recently instructed his security staff to “shoot to kill” Russian federal law-enforcement officers when they are on Chechen territory without his knowledge: “If you are the master of your territory, you should be in control. Enough is enough. We have been humiliated, insulted.” Sound familiar? One subtext here is that Russian FSB agents have been trying to ferret out who orchestrated the February murder of prominent oppositionist Boris Nemtsov. Their prime suspect, Ruslan Geremeyev – a big wheel in Chechen security circles – has remained mysteriously inaccessible. And now Russian media have suddenly reported the case is closed (presumably on orders from Kadyrov’s longtime patron, Vladimir Putin).

    Another Putin protégé, Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, also made remarks about sovereignty this week. First, he announced he will not go to Moscow to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, but will attend Belarus’s events instead. Then, he said in his annual address to parliament: “We are closely associated with Russia, we are brothers, but we want to live in our own apartment.” The question is: Will there still be a door between the apartments?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 24-March 2, 2014

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    The ‘Language of the Cobblestone’: Echoes of the Past and Prospects for New Directions

    Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam wrote in 1923: “The language of the cobblestone is clearer to me than the dove’s.” These words seem jarringly appropriate to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine: According to reports, the cobblestone has been a weapon wielded not only by frustrated protesters, but also by the so-called titushki – the young, athletic rabble-rousers hired by the authorities. Tragically, the language of firearms has spoken even louder: This week saw the first mass casualties of the last three months, as gunshots rang out from rooftops surrounding Independence Square and police opened fire with automatic weapons.

    By the way, readers should not be misled by the Mandelshtam quotation above. Revolutionary as the poet was in his own way, what he actually meant by “the language of the cobblestone” is the echoes of the past as preserved in physical artifacts. Now that the Olympic Games are over, economist Sergei Markov reflects on the pageantry of the opening ceremony, replete with physical reminders of Russia’s past (remember the onion domes, troikas, rocket ships?). Was Putin showing the glory of Russia for his own compatriots, as Markov contends, or was he striving to impress the rest of the world, as argued in a Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial? Experts interviewed by the Moscow Times speculate about whether the post-Olympic Russian world will be more lenient or more repressive.

    Speculations also abound in connection with this week’s news from the CIS. Two Americans – one a Senate staffer, the other a foreign policy researcher – visited Baku, where a Radio Liberty correspondent told them that Azerbaijan is on the brink of revolution, but also gave them a list showing that almost all oppositionists have ties to the ruling regime. Meanwhile, Georgia is concerned by a report that British diplomat Ryan Grist – who caused an international stir in 2008 by faulting Tbilisi for using disproportionate force during the five-day war with Russia – is about to be reassigned to Georgia as head of the EU Monitoring Mission. Speaking of reassignments, Grigory Mikhailov writes from Bishkek about a sophisticated network that recruits Kyrgyz youth to train in Middle East militant camps to fight as guerrillas elsewhere, including Syria.

    The continuing flurry of forces and interests within and around Syria prompts Fyodor Lukyanov to conclude that the Russian-led initiative to reach a settlement there has lost its momentum: It is time for diplomats on all sides to do some heavy lifting. In like manner, defense expert Vladimir Kozin faults the US for sticking to its guns on missile defense, thereby sapping the optimism that accompanied the signing of the 2010 START treaty. Kozin says it’s time for a “super New START deal” that would reshape the pattern of US missile defense. Perhaps in some cases, listening carefully to the echoes of the past can lead us in new directions.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #40

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 30-Oct. 6, 2013

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    Let’s imagine that, in the wake of the American Revolution, British loyalists in the Continental Congress had complained that the fledgling nation was going to rack and ruin, criticizing the emerging leader George Washington and enacting new laws that went against his ideas. Now, imagine that instead of tolerating dissent among the legislators (which certainly did exist), Washington had sent in the militia to dissolve the Continental Congress and written the Constitution to suit himself. America would be a different country today.

    In fact, it might be a lot like…Russia! For this scenario looks very much the way political commentators portray the post-Soviet political crisis of October 1993, as its 20th anniversary approaches. The opposing forces were the Communist-led Supreme Soviet and liberal firebrand Boris Yeltsin. In the words of an NG editorial this week: “October 1993 prevented late Soviet communism from transforming into a normal European social democracy.*** The Russian left became either part of the establishment or radicals, but not a real constructive opposition.”

    This historical background may shed some light on why the tone of political discourse in Russia is hard for Americans to fathom. Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov generously says in an interview that there is a place in government for the “law-abiding opposition” – as though it’s his prerogative to grant it access. Meanwhile, commentators outside government circles – not just wacko extremists, but mainstream journalists and pundits – talk on and on about ways to bring about peaceful political reform and leadership turnover – as though such things would never happen otherwise. According to Sergei Aleksashenko, the current authorities will keep on calling the shots until they either allow free elections or get forcibly kicked out.

    Speaking of kicked out – Greenpeace’s attempted “takeover” of an Arctic oil platform led to the arrests of all 30 activists aboard the environmental NGO’s ship – on charges of piracy. Interestingly, one Russian official is assuring the public that no piracy was committed – and that personage is none other than the avid outdoorsman (and president) Vladimir Putin! Yekaterina Kravtsova writes that Putin is playing the “good cop” (letting the investigators be the “bad cops”), while Greenpeace board member Artemy Troitsky points out that Arctic drilling is God’s gift (well, actually, the Russian taxpayers’ gift) to big oil. He also suggests that some of energy giant Gazprom’s profits go to line Putin’s pockets.

    The hard-working president is likely making more from his labors as a “galley slave” than the unfortunates in his country’s prison system. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (remember her? Pussy Riot?) is now on a hunger strike to protest slave labor conditions in her penal colony. This may be the only place left in Russia where money is doled out frugally (a mere 29 rubles a month). Meanwhile, Olga Kuvshinova faults the authorities for playing fast and loose with the Welfare Fund, the Pension Fund and social tax rates – clear signs that they have no idea what to do about the economy.

    The uncertain domestic economic picture contrasts sharply with the foreign policy scene, in which Russia is still basking in the role of savior. Granted, the Putin-Lavrov initiative to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is getting mixed reviews from Russian commentators. Semyon Novoprudsky reminds readers that even if President Assad scraps chemical weapons, that still won’t stop the civil war. Pavel Felgengauer points out that although Assad has been cooperative so far, the lethal chemicals are a hot potato that no one else wants to handle. Finally, Fyodor Lukyanov praises Moscow for moving the issue of chemical weapons beyond the confines of Syria (and beyond the troublesome question of who actually used them) to the realm of international security – for all of us. Judging from Lukyanov’s remarks, history will show that the US and Russia can be instructive examples for each other – in both the negative and the positive senses.

    Laurence Bogoslaw

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #51-52

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 14-31, 2015

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    Out With Ukraine, In With Syria: Recalling 2015 and Contemplating 2016

    “Should old Crimea be forgot and Donbass fade from mind, / Let’s all remember Syria and revere me for all time.” No, Vladimir Putin did not sing this twisted version of “Auld Lang Syne” at his annual press conference, but it seems to have been a subtext. According to news coverage of the event, his most memorable remark on Ukraine was an uncomplimentary statement about former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili (now governor of Odessa Province); and the emotional high of the three-hour conference came when Putin waxed eloquent

    This emphasis reflects a major trend in Moscow’s foreign policy that has taken shape in 2015: Ukraine is out, Syria is in. In a blatant demonstration of the former, Putin issued a decree that puts an end to the free trade relations between Russia and Ukraine as of Jan. 1. As for the latter, although the Russian president has been full of bravado about fighting ISIS, former ambassador Michael McFaul writes in the Moscow Times that Russia must fulfill certain conditions before the West will consider it a real partner in the war on terrorism; first and foremost, it must stop bombing the Syrian opposition. In a related article, seasoned political analyst Georgy Mirsky cautions that there are actually five wars raging in Syria, including one between the government and the opposition, and another between different factions of jihadists. Mirsky adds that despite the good intentions behind a newly minted UN resolution for settlement in Syria, the US’s allies in the Arab world will not let it launch an all-out campaign against ISIS: After all, although extremists, they are Sunni Muslims, like the vast majority of people in the Arab world.

    Of course, the press conference focused more on domestic issues than foreign policy. In this regard, Yury Saprykin observed that Putin was not in top form as he usually is at such events, where he confidently rattles off optimistic economic figures. Instead, the president neglected details, like the complacent CEO of a successful business. “This is exactly how Putin feels today: He gets his adrenaline rush from geopolitical confrontation, from locking horns with ‘our Western partners’ – and as for everything else, who cares?” This cynical attitude seems to have been confirmed when reporters asked about this year’s economic situation. Putin’s initial response (according to Izvestia) was to tell a joke with the punchline: “I thought [last year was bad], but now I see that last year was great, and it’s this year that really sucks.”

    So, what does 2016 hold in store? Tatyana Stanovaya published a piece in Slon.ru this week that lists what she calls the coming year’s five intrigi, a multipurpose word in Russian that in this context means suspenseful situations with uncertain outcomes (we chose to translate it as “cliff-hangers”). The last “cliff-hanger” is geopolitical – will the West lift sanctions against Russia? – but the first four all have to do with domestic policy: (1) Will structural reforms take place, such as privatization and more incentives for small business? (2) Will liberal officials return to power, like former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin? (3) Will the upcoming Duma elections be at all competitive? (4) Will the average Russian’s pent-up anger over depreciating salaries and rising prices launch a new wave of protests?

    Stanovaya’s answer to the first three: Don’t hold your breath – Russia’s conservative political system will continue to run as usual. But as for the fourth, she observes a growth in popular discontent, as well as global instability. “This year could bring a lot of things that haven’t happened in decades.*** And who knows, we could be on the threshold of a new era.” If so, then at the close of next year, Vladimir Putin really might be longing for “auld lang syne.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #25

    Letter From the Editors: June 15-21, 2015

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    Democracy May Be the Worst Form of Government – But What’s the Worst Form of Democracy?

    “Democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill is alleged to have said – “except for all the others.” Ukrainian voters are hungry for any taste of democracy as they gear up for the first local elections since the 2013-2014 Independence Square rallies. Expectations are high. Yet already there is evidence that the game is being rigged. Ukraine’s Opposition Bloc released a statement this week that it had been denied registration in its three strongest provinces. “Instead of protecting democratic standards, we are seeing [the authorities] derailing honest elections even before the start of the election campaign,” the statement concludes.

    Russians’ electoral expectations are not nearly so high after 15 years of the de facto rule of Vladimir Putin. With the 2016 Duma elections approaching (likely earlier than expected, given a recent decision by lawmakers to bump them up from December to September), commentators like Tatyana Stanovaya take it for granted that any serious competitors will be sidelined: “[Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s] Party of Progress was denied registration. The Republican Party of Russia/People’s Freedom Party may lose it if Navalny decides to back them.”

    Russians view the presidential race in a similar light. In fact, on the heels of the announcement of the early Duma vote, former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin made the bold suggestion: “If we are moving up the Duma elections, why not move up the presidential election and announce a new reform program that will be easier to carry out with a mandate of trust?” Trust in whom? Vladimir Vladimirovich, of course. In effect, Kudrin was acknowledging that Putin would win no matter what!

    So then, Stanovaya asks in a separate article, why talk about reforms at all? Her answer: to please the West, creating the illusion that it’s worth investing in Russia (politically and economically). Ivan Sukhov, however, speculates that the only move that would spur rapprochement with the West is instituting “free elections” in 2018. Yet he immediately rejects the possibility out of hand: “Transferring power in that way would rank as a major accomplishment for Russia*** Unfortunately, that is an unimaginable scenario for the ruling regime.” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the West’s favorite Russian dissident, made a similar point in a speech this week at the Atlantic Council.

    But this week’s news also reminds us that Europe and the US are quite unperturbed by the lack of democracy in some other corners of the world. Witness the international credibility of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan almost a decade longer than Putin has ruled Russia. Nazarbayev’s recent reelection gives him carte blanche to create any law he wants. The most recent is one empowering Kazakh peacekeepers to go anywhere in the world to join UN peacekeeping contingents (including, theoretically, Ukraine).

    Speaking of Ukraine – if one believes the conjectures of the Lugansk press service, the US convinced Poroshenko to appoint ex-Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili as governor of Odessa Province. America supposedly hoped its longtime Georgian ally would stir up the frozen conflict in Transnistria, Odessa’s neighbor just inland from the Black Sea. Recall that weeks ago, Ukraine already suspended military cooperation with Moscow, which meant blocking transport of troops and supplies to reinforce Russian forces in the controversial Moldovan republic.

    Could these recent moves by Ukraine be part of what Russian hard-liners call America’s attempts to “export democracy” to Eastern Europe? Or is it really exporting something else? Here is what Russian Federation Communist Party veteran Gennady Zyuganov has to say: “[The US] is the giant headquarters of the power of ‘global capital’ that is seeking to dominate the entire world: transnational financial and economic organizations whose goal is to control all institutions ensuring the national sovereignty of individual countries.”

    We can’t help asking: Is this what Churchill had in mind when he said “democracy”?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #42

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 17-23, 2016

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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #42 Table of Contents

    Taking the High Ground: This Week’s Lip Service, Laughs and Lectures From Russia.

    The “high ground” seems to be a running motif in this week’s Digest coverage: The Russian leadership has managed to stare down, tease and even lecture the political movers and shakers of other countries without drawing unwelcome attention to its own vulnerabilities.

    The most geopolitically grand gesture is that Putin attended the first “Normandy Four” meeting of 2016 in Berlin, thus showing that (1) he’s not an international pariah and (2) he’s in solidarity with the West in paying lip service to the Minsk agreements for settling the protracted conflict in the Donetsk Basin. At this point, implementing those accords puts more burden on Ukraine than Russia, as Tatyana Stanovaya points out: Kiev has a mountain of political and legislative work to do – for example, reforming the Ukrainian Constitution and working out a procedure for elections in the separatist regions – while Moscow has the luxury of simply waiting for it to hoe that row.

    Meanwhile, the Russian media are in a feeding frenzy over allegations that the US election is being rigged. Alex Gorka notes (with a mixture of incredulity and glee) that these allegations come from Republican hopeful Donald Trump in particular: “Just think about it – the leader of a major political party believes that the US voting system is flawed! The candidate has said that some people voted despite being ineligible, some cast ballots many times and some impersonated dead voters.” This last item likely elicits laughter from Russian readers, who are well acquainted with the analogous scam in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel “Dead Souls.” In addition, there must be a certain Schadenfreude with respect to recent history: Recalling the mass protests and claims of fraud that swept Russia after the 2011 State Duma elections, we can imagine that Trump’s allegations about the US system must be music to the Kremlin’s ears.

    Even more rife than speculations about anti-Trump factors in the election are stories in both the Russian and American media that Putin is pushing for a Trump victory. This idea gathered steam during the summer, when Russian hackers released e-mails that compromised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s reputation. Adding fuel to that fire this week is Konstantin Kosachov, chairman of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, who excoriates Clinton’s campaign article (published in Time magazine Oct. 13) titled “Why America Is Exceptional.” Kosachov labels the article “propaganda,” calls it “a culture shock” for the rest of the world, and even takes on a moralistic tone, making a thinly veiled reference to Nazi Germany: “[T]here have been no maxims of this kind and at this level probably since the 1930s and 1940s. We remember very well where talk about the ‘exceptionalism’ of one particular nation led the world at that time, and what price it had to pay.”

    Another Russian legislator who took the moral high ground this week was newly elected Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (formerly Putin’s aide), when he responded publicly to an invitation from PACE president Pedro Agramunt to resume work with the European parliament (from which Russia resigned last year after being stripped of its voting rights). While Volodin acknowledged the need for dialogue, he pointed out that Russia has no business participating in PACE without the right to vote: “Parliament is a place for discussion – a place for dialogue, for expressing viewpoints.” He added: “I mean, look at how the Russian parliament is structured. We have factions that don’t hold a majority, but participate in discussions on all issues.” The irony of this statement cannot be lost on informed Russian readers, who undoubtedly recall the infamous remark by Volodin’s predecessor, Boris Gryzlov: “The Duma is no place for discussion!”

    Honoring the Russian custom of using proverbs to sum up a situation, there are two that come to mind here: “Turnabout is fair play” and “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” We leave it up to you to choose which is more fitting!

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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