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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #47

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 21-27, 2016

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    Issue #47 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #47 Table of Contents

    The View From the Kremlin – Living the Dream in a Post-Truth World

    In what could be called the Year of Backlash (with all the previous references to Brexit and Trump), 2016 continues to shock and amaze. On the heels of the surprising arrest of economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev last week, Russian commentators rushed to wrap their collective brains around the Igor Sechin Phenomenon. For better or worse, it looks like Putin’s ally from his days at St. Petersburg City Hall is upping the ante politically. But as Andrei Kolesnikov points out, Sechin is not a political figure – at least officially. He is merely the CEO of a state-owned corporation. However, he is rumored to have strong ties with law enforcement, and as we saw last week, he isn’t shy about using them.

    According to Yevgenia Albats, Rosneft is now officially taking on the powers of law-enforcement agencies: “What we are witnessing is not the merging of the state and business. . . but rather the merging of a repressive agency with the wealthiest state-owned corporation,” she writes. Is this the emergence of a corporate state in Russia, something that Benito Mussolini once ominously described as, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”?

    Vladimir Pastukhov takes Albats’ sentiments a step further. Yes, Sechin is currently ruthlessly asserting himself on the political arena, going after the so-called liberal establishment (as embodied by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin). But by showing that he is in a way bigger than Putin, Sechin could be setting himself up for a very big fall: “Sechin’s over-the-top pushiness could at some point force Putin to take response measures. And in that case, there will be no shortage of people willing to cut [Sechin] down to size.”

    Perhaps Sechin can only hope that Putin is too distracted with trying to figure out how to play his cards right in the Middle East to worry about interclan power struggles. With Donald Trump to take over the White House in January 2017, Moscow’s Middle East strategy is in disarray: While Trump vowed to make fighting terrorism his top priority, he also promised to take a tougher line with Iran – Moscow’s ally in Syria, writes Mikhail Troitsky. And one condition for normalizing relations with Russia could require Moscow to jump on the bandwagon and get tough with Tehran. What’s more, in order to move toward reconciliation, Russia would have to fundamentally alter its view of the US. For the past several years, Russian propaganda has successfully convinced the domestic audience that America is a geopolitical foe hell-bent on destroying Russia. So is it possible to shift gears and instead portray the US as a “positive force in international relations”? With a presidential election in Russia on the horizon, that would mean “abandoning an important lever of influence on voters,” says Troitsky.

    The view isn’t all bad from the Kremlin this week: Elections in Bulgaria and Moldova were a pleasant surprise, writes Gevorg Mirzayan. Both countries elected politicians who campaigned on improving ties with Russia: Bulgaria’s Rumen Radev does not position himself as either pro-European or pro-Russian, but rather an independent candidate. Moldova’s Igor Dodon, for his part, campaigned on a heavily pro-Russian platform, also proposing outlawing “unionism” (the movement to unite Moldova and Romania).

    Not to be outdone, European Parliament deputies rushed to stem the effects of Russian propaganda by adopting a controversial resolution that effectively lumps Russia together with ISIS and Al Qaeda, writes Aleksandr Mineyev. The resolution aims to fight propaganda that “undermines and erodes the European narrative based on democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.” But is the EU’s measure too little, too late, given that the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #46

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 14-20, 2016

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    Issue #46 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #46 Table of Contents

    A Week of Bewilderment, Befuddlement, Bemusement.

    Nothing can be taken for granted these days, it seems. Not after Brexit and Trump. The world is still processing – reeling over – Donald’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election. Experts are nervously contemplating the consequences of what appears to be a nascent era of populist backlash against establishment political figures, attitudes and institutions – and perhaps even more broadly, modernity. Whatever new era might be dawning, it will certainly be one of political and general uncertainty.

    Russia is not immune to surprising developments, it turns out. The biggest head-scratcher to come out of Russia this week was the middle-of-the-night arrest of Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was allegedly caught accepting a bribe from Rosneft for giving a “positive assessment that allowed Rosneft to purchase a controlling stake in Bashneft.” There are many eyebrow-raising elements to the case, writes Yulia Latynina. For example, the “bribe” allegedly occurred long after the deal to purchase the Bashneft stake was finalized; the wealthy cabinet minister was supposedly demanding the relatively paltry sum of $2 million in a multibillion-dollar deal; and Putin apparently was aware of the impending sting operation long before it happened, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Ulyukayev’s boss, only learned of the impending arrest the day before. The list of baffling aspects of the arrest goes on. Although not calling the charges patently false or a provocation (as Ulyukayev claims they are), many commentators nevertheless call the arrest politically significant, if not politically motivated.

    Andrei Kolesnikov says the arrest sends a wake-up call to the elite ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The Stalinesque arrest of a top government official is sure to inspire the “loyalty of fear,” as Eva Hartog and Mikhail Fishman put it. The arrest also bolsters Putin’s image as a corruption crusader, and reeling in a big fish before the 2018 election cycle will definitely score him some points with voters, even though such a high-level corruption scandal will tarnish Russia’s reputation in general. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that Putin’s electoral platforms are always nothing more than slogans (such as fighting corruption) that serve to boost ratings but don’t become part of an overall strategy. With Putin, everything is ad hoc. So could Ulyukayev’s arrest be a shoot-from-the-hip solution to a political issue?

    The other sensational story to come out of Russia this week is that the Russian Supreme Court overturned the sentence of avowed Putin oppositionist and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny in a 2013 embezzlement case. The decision enables him to run for elected office again. The unexpected decision was cause for celebration and suspicion. Some suspect that the Kremlin may actually need its bitter foe to run for president, to give Putin a credible opponent in the election. Others suggest that the Kremlin might be seeking to co-opt him.

    The fact is that Putin is entering what is presumably his last presidential election cycle. This has the Russian elite on edge and preparing for Russia without Putin. What awaits the elite amid the surging tide of populism and antiestablishment sentiment? Should Putin himself be worried about the upcoming election? After all, you can’t get much more establishment than the current Russian regime, right? But perhaps Putin doesn’t have much reason to be afraid. As Yury Saprykin writes somewhat facetiously, Putin turned out to be ahead of the political curve. Trump essentially used the same spin techniques to win the US election that Putin has been using for years in Russia: unsubstantiated statements, fake news and provocative clickbait. Restoring lost “greatness” is in vogue these days, and Putin is becoming something of a cult figure in the eyes of America’s alt-right and Europe’s far-right. Hopefully past greatness doesn’t mean the 1930s for Russia and more late-night arrests.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 16-22, 2017

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    Issue #3 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #3 Table of Contents

    Making Sense of US Presidential Politics, Shifting Alliances in Syria, International Politics, Rosneft Privatization Schemes.

    The Russian press continues to weigh in on the change of executive power in the US, assessing the impact of both the incoming and outgoing presidents on Russia’s interests and bilateral relations.

    Aleksandr Gabuyev offers a withering criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency, attributing his failures to a hands-off administrative style and reticent personality, and calling him a “nauseating bureaucrat.” Gabuyev says that Obama would only get involved on issues that interested him personally, leaving those that didn’t to lower level officials to deal with as they wished. After the failure of the Obama-initiated reset in US-Russian relations, Washington essentially washed its hands of Russia, Gabuyev contends.

    Trump is definitely no bureaucrat (though certainly nauseating to many), and he is a fresh if not welcome change for Moscow. But Russian commentators are still trying to figure out just what the change means for Russia. Trump’s top advisers and cabinet figures have differing, even contradictory, views on Russia, making Trump’s Russian strategy hard to pin down. Vladimir Frolov believes Trump may try to use arms reductions as a safe starting place for negotiations that could be tied to a host of other issues such as the Crimea, Ukraine, sanctions, Syria, etc. – offering Russia rock-bottom deals on fundamental issues in exchange for Russian cooperation in fighting terrorism. The Moscow Times writes that the Russian and US presidents are in many respects soul mates, sharing a common worldview and opinions: “They both seem to believe that the world’s liberal order merely hides the Western establishment’s personal interests under a disingenuous mask of values.” So will Putin and Trump join forces to bring the “liberal order” to heel? And if Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election, will she join them? Considering what she told Izvestia reporters in an exclusive interview, she very well could.

    Oddly enough, it might just be the leader of China who stands up against a Trumpian world order. Nikolai Epple writes that Xi Jinping was the only responsible leader railing against protectionism, and voicing continued support for globalization and international cooperation at a recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. This strikes Epple as an almost comical role reversal: China is now lecturing the rest of the world on openness?!

    The Trump presidency and a potential new world order are not the only puzzles Russian analysts are trying to solve. This week, Pavel Felgengauer delved into the increasingly convoluted fight in Syria, focusing on a curious alliance that has formed in the fight for al‑Bab. In trying to drive ISIS from the city, Russia is now engaged in joint operations with its would-be foe, Turkey, which is providing support for Free Syrian Army detachments – which, in turn, are considered terrorists by Syrian President Bashar Assad (doggedly backed by Russia). The battle with this odd configuration of forces is being fought a week before a much-anticipated round of negotiations in Astana, where the strange bedfellows (Russia, Turkey and Iran) hope to mediate a Syrian peace agreement while carving out a greater role for their countries in the region, writes Aleksandr Shumilin.

    Meanwhile, journalist Aleksei Polukhin has been busy wading through last month’s Rosneft privatization deal, which is turning out to be messier and messier. He discovered that not only does it involve shady, hastily thrown together conglomerations of international investors and financiers, but it turns out that the loan to cover the majority of the purchase amount may have come entirely from Russia’s own Foreign Trade Bank (VTB). And get this: Former Russian economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was unceremoniously arrested at Rosneft headquarters for allegedly soliciting a bribe, is on VTB’s oversight board. So, what sort of sense are we to make of that?

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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