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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
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    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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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 24-30, 2016

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    Issue #43 Letter From the Editors
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    Is the End of the Globalization Era in Sight?

    The past two weeks have been marked by a series of meetings about practical policy matters and their broader philosophical implications. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. The ministers reiterated the need for a political solution to the conflict and emphasized that the US and its coalition allies must convince the moderate opposition to dissociate itself from terrorists like Jabhat al‑Nusra. They also gave the US heat for preventing further intra-Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

    It is Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko who has been catching heat at home since last week’s meeting of the “Normandy Four” leaders in Berlin. Patience is wearing thin over the Minsk agreements, which a growing number of critics in Ukraine are saying should be abandoned. Poroshenko pushed back, asserting that the agreements are the only path to peace, but he also rejected the notion of giving up the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The next chapter in the Ukraine saga will be a road map for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements that the “Normandy Four” foreign ministers are to have ready by the end of November.

    Leading policy experts from around the world met in Sochi this week for the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. This year’s topic was about shaping the world’s future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks at the meeting were both defensive and cautiously optimistic. He issued his usual criticisms of the West for blaming Russia for all that is wrong in the world and using double standards. Commentator Andrei Akulov offers a laundry list of the accumulated grievances in Russian-US relations, which Putin hopes will improve under a new US president. Putin adopted a particularly strident tone as he rejected the “imaginary, mythical threats” about the Russian “barbarians”: “Russia has no intention to attack anyone. That is ridiculous. It is simply preposterous, foolish and unrealistic.” Putin repeated what has been his main foreign policy dogma throughout his leadership tenure: Russia wants to see a multipolar world where every country is equally respected and no country can “reshape the world order to suit its own interests,” which he intimated the US has been doing ever since the end of the cold war.

    Fyodor Lukyanov writes that the world is growing disillusioned with the universalistic message of globalization. Its promised benefits are failing to materialize, or are doing so in ways that many did not predict, leading to imbalances in the world political system and public sentiment. Lukyanov says that dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo has turned into “global disorder”: the fragmentation of interests and objectives instead of their universalization.

    In addition to Ukraine and Syria, another symptom of that “global disorder” is the current US presidential campaign, where outspoken Republican candidate Donald Trump is breaking nearly every political convention, seemingly without losing any political capital. His populist message of drastic, reactionary approaches to hot-button issues like terrorism and immigration appeals to base fears about those issues and taps into the growing strain of disillusionment with globalization’s gospel of universalism. Lukyanov suggests that modern institutions founded on ideas of global governance built on consensus have failed to adequately address such fears – at least in the minds of many citizens. And so the task of existing global institutions, Lukyanov argues, is to prevent centrifugal and polarizing forces from creating more division and conflict on national and international levels. But he is not optimistic: “The scale of problems facing the world offers no hope that solutions will be found in the foreseeable future.”

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #41

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 5-11, 2015

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    All Right, That’s Settled! – Or Is It? The Winding Road From Donetsk to Damascus

    As Russia launches its first large-scale military campaign in the last 25 years, foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov urges Moscow to learn from the past experience of the West: “In the last decade and a half, the US and its allies have been increasingly active in the forcible settlement (I cannot bring myself to say final settlement) of regional conflicts – primarily in the Greater Middle East.” He uses two slightly different nouns for “settlement”: regulirovaniye (the ongoing process of trying to settle a conflict) and uregulirovaniye (the successful result of settling it for good). What a difference one letter can make!

    Military experts with extensive combat experience seem to agree with Lukyanov. Those interviewed by Novaya gazeta’s Irek Murtazin say that given the Syrian Army’s battle-weary state and the fact that the “enemy” is highly mobile and elusive, Russian forces could get bogged down for a long time trying to eliminate the threat of ISIS terrorism.

    Another conflict zone that has already been bogged down for some time – both militarily and politically – is the Donetsk Basin. Some commentators are expressing optimism in the wake of this week’s Normandy Four negotiations in Paris, where the parties agreed to postpone implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreements until 2016, and in the meantime to devise special rules by which local elections in the separatist regions could be held according to Ukrainian law. Even so, Vitaly Portnikov sounds a note of skepticism about the prospects of resolving the eastern Ukraine conflict. Portnikov’s tone is reminiscent of Lukyanov’s tone on Syria, and he even uses that same noun: “[E]ach new step of the Donetsk Basin settlement process – if there actually is a settlement instead of just a freezing of the conflict – promises to be very complicated.”

    To hear Nezavisimaya gazeta tell it, that’s just how Moscow would like it. An Oct. 6 editorial offers the theory that Russia is directing the Ukrainian separatists to make partial concessions, keeping the conflict “frozen” to give Moscow time to addresses the more pressing issue of Syria. However, the editorial also raises another possibility: Putin is propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in order to raise the geopolitical stakes with the West. In other words, as Russian planes strike Syrian targets, Putin can offer to let the West have its way with Assad if they let him have his way with Ukraine.

    Ivan Davydov also sees a link between Ukraine and Syria. In his biting commentary in The New Times, he portrays a “wag the dog” scenario in which the Syrian campaign is simply the next big thing to entertain Russian TV viewers and keep the fires of patriotism stoked. As evidence, he points out that three days before Russia’s Federation Council gave the go-ahead to being air strikes, the news program Vesti nedeli had shown war footage of Syria, interspersed with “indoctrinating commentary” about how Assad’s government was Russia’s key ally in fighting ISIS terrorists. Anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov had urged, “We had better stop them where they are.” Davydov’s conclusion: “Kiselyov announced the war three days before the Federation Council made the decision.”

    So, let’s get this straight – Russia is keeping the Donetsk conflict unsettled (i.e., frozen) because it has bigger fish to fry in Damascus? Or is the military campaign in Syria just a ploy to distract the world’s attention from Ukraine? Or perhaps a tactical maneuver to up the ante in Russia’s confrontation with the West, setting Ukraine aside to use later as a bargaining chip? Or a way to feed the Russian TV audience’s craving for new victories against external enemies? All of the above? These conflicting (geo)political interpretations are a bit – for lack of a better word – unsettling.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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