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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 13-19, 2014



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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
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    What Vladimir Lenin Can Teach Us About Social Media


    What are the necessary ingredients for a successful revolution? According to Lenin, it’s the “telegraph, the post and the telephone.” Clearly, even back then, the Bolshevik leader understood that control over information is key to turning the tide in your favor. This week, world leaders stuck to that playbook, with varying degrees of success.


    The Russian side fired some decisive rounds in the information war via a media flurry of activity. President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, presidential administration chief Sergei Ivanov and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev all gave interviews to four separate media outlets. Putin’s remarks included such bon mots as: “Unfortunately, many European nations are losing their immunity to the Nazi virus, an immunity that was acquired during the Nuremberg Trials.” The Russian president went on to lament that the Ukrainian crisis looks particularly troubling in this respect (remember Moscow’s official party line, that fascist forces orchestrated an unconstitutional coup in Kiev last winter).


    By comparison, Prime Minister Medvedev sounded downright conciliatory when he spoke with America’s CNBC. Medvedev’s focus was more on international law and the recent sanctions against Russia, which are going to hurt everyone, not just the country they are directed against, he said.


    But the prize for most bellicose rhetoric goes to Nikolai Patrushev, hands down. Speaking with Rossiiskaya gazeta, the Security Council Secretary called the recent tensions in relations with the West a “second cold war” and accused Western powers of plotting to “redivide the world” while keeping Russia in the periphery of global decision-making. Patrushev then took his theories a step further, saying that Washington is also trying to marginalize European powers that “have moved too close to Moscow.”


    If the above sounds like a page out of a 1970s edition of Pravda, then Novaya gazeta’s interview with Boris Litvinov, chairman of the Donetsk people’s republic Supreme Council, is another wrinkle in time. Litvinov discusses the breakaway republic’s planned government structure, lambasts Pyotr Poroshenko’s recently signed law granting the DPR special status – albeit as part of Ukraine – and outlines the DPR’s ideology (echoing Putin when he called for fighting “fascist ideology in all of its forms and manifestations”). Finally, collectivism is a running thread throughout the interview, conducted in the Supreme Council chairman’s hammer- and-sickle decorated office.


    Not to be outdone, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko also met with the press just ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting summit, where he will meet with Vladimir Putin. According to the Ukrainian leader, “It seems we have reached an agreement with the Russians about everything.” He also hinted that next week’s meeting will show how successful those agreements will be. Thus, experts concluded that some sort of private agreement has been reached between Moscow and Kiev.


    According to Aleksei Mukhin, the Milan meeting is strictly pro forma, since Poroshenko is locked in an electoral struggle back home and can’t afford to take any steps that would be perceived as caving in to Russia.


    So it seems that the media war of words is still failing to give any one side the upper hand. Well, what can you expect when “there are no live channels of interaction between the political systems of the European Union and Russia,” says Argumenty i fakty columnist Vyacheslav Kostikov. Despite today’s informational arsenal of “heavy howitzers of global television, the Internet and the capabilities of social networks,” these propaganda salvos are failing to reach their target. One can’t help but wonder, what would Lenin do?


    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 1-7, 2016



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    Seeing Double: How Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Hijacked Politics


    Russian officials this week seem to be suffering from multiple personality disorder, like Sybil in the eponymous cult film. First case in point: The actual legal status of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company. According to Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “Officially, this is not a state-owned company; that much is clear. But naturally, there are several viewpoints on the matter.” That sort of answer does not give much clarity. Meanwhile, Rosneft is still hoping to throw its hat in the ring when it comes to privatizing Bashneft – another state-owned asset. The company’s wishy-washy legal status means it adapts whichever “identity” is convenient for it (read: the Russian government) in a particular scenario, like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spawned by the bureaucracy machine.”


    Russia’s two most famous Igors – Sechin and Shuvalov – seem to be suffering from a similar condition. They just can’t decide whether they’re coming or going. Plainly put, despite calls for Russian officials to abandon foreign property and vacation only at home in Mother Russia, Shuvalov still owns a luxury apartment in London. Meanwhile, Sechin’s yacht (apparently named after his new young wife) continues to sail the seas of Europe, writes RBC Daily. Sechin is even threatening to sue Novaya gazeta and other publications for “disseminating materials containing inaccurate information.”


    Maybe Igor Ivanovich should relax. According to Tatyana Stanovaya, such media leaks are nothing but a rousing game of “bait the FSB,” meant to show “that even if it wanted to, the FSB would be unable to get its hands on these top officials and Putin’s closest friends.” Despite a spate of high-ranking arrests last week, it seems there still are people who remain off limits in Russia.


    The most famous multiple personality case this week does not hail from Russia. Rather, he is America’s own Donald Trump. Some Russian officials are clearly expecting him to be the deus ex machina that finally gets Russian-American relations out of their perpetual rut. They see “the Donald’s” promises to abandon the US’s NATO commitments and “take a look at” the Crimea situation as positive signals.


    Many experts, however, are not optimistic that Trump is the solution: “Proposing marriage does not mean getting married, but even if the conversation turns to ‘marriage,’ Trump is already on his third – and he has not been noted for fidelity, including in the political sense,” writes Pavel Demidov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. His colleague Mikhail Troitsky agrees: “I would advise Putin to be cautious with Trump. He is extremely unpredictable, and we don’t know who, for example, his national security adviser might be. What if he goes for someone really hawkish to prove to the bureaucracy he’s a mainstream guy?”


    Meanwhile, Russia’s complicated relationship with Turkish President Erdogan just got even more confusing. Once barely known outside of expert circles, Erdogan became the favorite cartoon villain of Russian television screens following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in November 2015. Then, things got even more complicated: Turkey aborted a coup attempt, and Erdogan apologized for the incident with the jet (not necessarily in that order). The Turkish president quickly went from villain to hero fighting a “fifth column.” So what’s a confused TV audience to think? According to Grigory Golosov, “Erdogan is neither good nor bad. He made an immense contribution to Turkey’s progress toward democracy. And as often happens, he is now also the biggest threat to Turkish democracy.” How is he a threat? “Since the failed coup, Erdogan’s political clout is so great that he could become a dictator,” writes Golosov. Looks like Erdogan now stands at a crossroads and will have to choose. Or does the Turkish president have a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of his own going on?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #36

    Letter From the Editors: September 2-8, 2013


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    Door Closed on Syria? Letting the Navalny Genie Out of the Bottle; and Russia’s Big Brother Syndrome


    This week’s main theme could be summed up in one word – Syria. According to The Moscow Times, US President Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his “red line” policy. Desperate to sell the planned strike on Syria as a winning strategy, his administration is citing such “successes” as the NATO strike against Yugoslavia and the Iraq campaign – as if those could really be called successes, writes former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov. He is echoed by military expert Fyodor Lukyanov, who points out the irony of Obama securing the 2008 presidential election victory due largely to the promise to end the Iraq campaign, only to turn around and risk getting the US bogged down in yet another long and pointless war five years later.


    Of course, Russia is not exactly faultless in the matter, Aleksandr Golts points out. It should have accepted Sen. Richard Lugar’s proposal a year ago to work together to bring the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under control. But Moscow turned down the offer. Is it too late to start cooperating on Syria?


    Perhaps not. In an interview with the Associated Press and Russia’s Channel 1 television, Russian President Vladimir Putin underscored the primacy of international law on any decision regarding Syria, but also stated that Russia and the US have common goals. The world will watch with bated breath how the two presidents interact at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, since global security hangs in the balance, writes political analyst Boris Mezhuyev. And while issues such as gay rights are certainly important, they pale in comparison to the Syria crisis, which could unleash World War III. After all, writes the expert, the events leading to the start of World War I were eerily familiar.


    Putin’s interview also touched on relations with Russia’s CIS partner, Ukraine. Trying to sound conciliatory, Putin said that Moscow will respect whichever foreign policy vector Kiev chooses – the EU or the Customs Union. However, as Ukraine and Moldova inch ever closer to EU integration, Russian officials’ statements are vacillating between bribery (presidential adviser Sergei Glazyev said Kiev could get about $12 billion a year in reduced natural gas prices if it says no to an association agreement with the EU) to outright threats (unsurprisingly, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin advised Moldova “not to get left out in the cold” this winter, in a hint of more gas diplomacy to come). As its control over the post-Soviet space slips, Russia still insists on acting like a “big brother who has the right to punish other disobedient family members,” writes Vedomosti.


    In another attempt to “rein in” a troubled region, President Putin this week dismissed Far East Federal District head Viktor Ishayev, replacing him with tried-and-true Putinite Yury Trutnev, who was also given the title of deputy prime minister. Prior to that, the only other authorized representative to pull double duty was North Caucasus Federal District rep Aleksandr Khloponin. Political expert Aleksei Mukhin says the strategy of appointing Putin loyalists to posts in the government is all part of a stealth attempt to bring the cabinet under tighter presidential control using the institution of authorized representatives.


    However, the Kremlin may be losing control over the Moscow mayoral election. Presidential administration chief Vyacheslav Volodin’s pet project to introduce “top-down” political competition to give the election greater legitimacy may have opened Pandora’s box, writes columnist Andrei Kolesnikov. Since the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing in the Russian government, the situation has spun out of control and opposition candidate Aleksei Navalny has ended up with a much higher approval rating than Volodin and Co. figured on. So, will this latest flirtation with legitimate competition be scrapped? Or will it be the regime’s undoing?


    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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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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    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 #6

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 6-12, 2017



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    Kremlin’s Election Catch‑22; Trump and Putin: Bros or Foes?


    The Kremlin has an election problem. It needs to get Vladimir Putin reinstalled as president in the March 2018 election, but it needs voters to care about voting to show up to the polls. Right now, not many people do, since electoral outcomes seem generally predetermined making, voting pointless. So the goal is to get people interested in the election by perhaps giving voters enticing ballot options. But the problem is that Russians are politically illiterate, if you believe a federal official cited by RBC who says that except for the Duma faction leaders and a few high-ranking officials like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, there are no other names recognizable to the voters. There had been talk that the Kremlin would try to get the perennial establishment opposition leaders to step aside and let younger, fresher faces run in the election, but according to RBC’s source, that is not going to happen.


    Russia’s tired opposition faces are all familiar from the 1990s (LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky proudly boasts he is running for president for the sixth time – a record in Europe), and they more or less all have the Kremlin’s blessing and march to the beat of its drum. In fact, the Russian Federation Communist Party and A Just Russia, which have not yet officially nominated presidential candidates, have said they are going to “discuss the issue with the Kremlin.” I guess they need Putin’s approval. So no matter who you vote for, you’re likely voting for Putin’s agenda.


    There are, however, a few brave politicians bucking the Kremlin line. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, another political old-timer, is rousing his base and reaching out to young voters with the message that Putin is living in the past and making a “shameful, harmful and criminal” land grab in Ukraine that does nothing good for Russia. Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition figure, who was just given another five-year suspended sentence in a retrial of a previous conviction, approves of the message but pokes fun at the messenger for being a 1990s throwback.


    It turns out that Russia’s most popular politician may not even be from Russia. For a while, US President Donald Trump was being mentioned in the Russian media far more than Putin, leading Kirill Kharatyan to speculate what it is about Trump that’s so appealing to Russians. He says Trump’s blunt political incorrectness and brazen determination resonate with voters (these characteristics are partly what had enthralled Russians about Putin, before he started losing his mojo). Yury Saprykin agrees that there are a lot of similarities between Trump and Putin, including their manipulative rhetoric. However, he says that whereas Putin is covert and calculating, Trump is unabashedly public and wildly unpredictable, so “the hope of Russian patriots that Putin and Trump are on the verge of dividing the world in half and establishing something akin to a conservative international is a purely Russian aberration.” In other words, a bromance might not be in the offing. In fact, Saprykin says the cold snap in US-Russian relations just might get longer and colder.


    But we’ve got other things to worry about besides the climate change in Russian-US relations. Aleksandr Golts says the new US president is a loose cannon smashing through the global ship that had been bearing humanity toward rosy horizons on a liberal, progressive tack. Golts says that for Trump, there are no supreme values (like actual climate change) – only interests. Konstantin Simonov says progressives need to lash the cannon and get the ship back on the values course, but the problem is that progressives have too readily and for too long overlooked the shortcomings of their agenda – particularly globalization – to the detriment of those left behind. While Obama was a president who was perhaps too focused on the future, Trump is a president too focused on the past. We are left wondering: Is Trump a temporary eclipse, or have the planets drastically realigned in the political orbit?


    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: April 24-30, 2017



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    ‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’ – Understanding the Inner Workings of the Kremlin and the French Election


    While the French presidential election has only been through its first round of voting, and the Russian presidential election is a year away, some interesting parallels are already emerging between the two. The starkest difference is of course the number of candidates: The French election featured four leading candidates who “were virtually neck and neck in the polls,” making any predictions as to who will make it into the final round too close to call. Russia essentially has one candidate – Putin. And even he has yet to officially announce his bid, says Prof. Valery Solovei in an interview with The New Times. This ambiguity is feeding a behind-the-scenes power struggle within the elite: “If the candidate is Putin, there’s one agenda. If there’s a different candidate, the agenda is entirely different. It’s assumed right now that Putin is almost sure to run. Still, there’s a certain measure of uncertainty.”


    According to Solovei, the Russian elite are divided into two camps – the security clan and the technocrat clan. While the security clan has some old faces like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, the technocrats have fresh blood, as exemplified by Anton Vaino, the new presidential chief of staff (who replaced another political doyen, Sergei Ivanov) and Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s new domestic policy chief. However, according to the expert, these newcomers share a major flaw: Neither one has an independent agenda.


    Meanwhile, the masses are clearly getting restless (as the March 26 rallies have shown), and the same old TV propaganda just isn’t cutting it anymore. Even corruption – an issue that official television channels have consistently relied upon to mobilize the public – isn’t doing the trick, writes Tatyana Stanovaya. According to her, the wave of high-profile arrests that continues to this day (remember former economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev?) is being used by the FSB to establish control over the country. She points out that despite a wave of corruption exposés sweeping almost every agency in Russia, the FSB itself has so far remained suspiciously above reproach. The only official who has dared point the finger at it – the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Denis Sugrobov – just got 22 years in prison. Coincidence?


    As experts keep wondering whether Putin will run and whether the Kremlin’s “scorched earth” political policy will come back to haunt Russia once its perennial president finally departs (as Mikhail Khodorkovsky warns in an interview with Yevgenia Albats), the French have a little more certainty in their political future. It’s now clear that the final round will be a face-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron and National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Terrified of a Le Pen victory, the French political elite are rallying around Macron, writes Stanovaya. So by all indications, on May 7, he will clinch the presidency. This creates another headache for Moscow, which chose the path of maximum hostility with Macron in an effort to help François Fillon in the race. The Kremlin unleashed the full might of its propaganda machine against Macron – from spreading media stories about him being a “US agent” to hacking his party’s servers (as Macron’s campaign headquarters reported in March).


    But why go after a candidate who initially presented a conciliatory position on Russia, wonders Vladimir Frolov? After all, “when he declared his candidacy, Macron outlined foreign policy positions that were not hostile to Moscow. He argued that Russia must play a decisive role in ending the conflict in Syria. . . . He favored renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine and the gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia.” Perhaps this is yet another cryptic move by the Kremlin’s secretive elite that mere mortals are not meant to understand.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing 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 #42

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



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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 #12

    Letter From the Editors: March 20-26, 2017



    PDF Downloads:
    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #12 Table of Contents

    It’s Not Easy Being Green… But Somebody’s Got to Do It


    As Russia draws within a year of its next presidential election, opposition figures are coming forward to criticize the likely winner – Vladimir Putin. For example, Leonid Gozman in a Novaya gazeta commentary accuses him of gaining and maintaining public support through shameless deception: “Leaders who are ineffective or do not make the public’s well-being a priority are compelled to distort reality, creating an illusory world like that of the Wizard of Oz.” As if to reinforce the image of Putin’s Russia as the Emerald City, the media (both state-run and social) are buzzing with the story of Putin’s most vocal opponent, Aleksei Navalny, getting splashed with green dye at a campaign event in Barnaul. Now some of Navalny’s supporters are playing the “green scene” to their advantage, smearing themselves with the dye and proudly taking selfies!


    Speaking of Oz, could Kremlin wizardry be behind the sudden disappearance of a 2014 letter in which then-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich requested that his Russian counterpart send in troops to protect him from his own people who were protesting on Kiev’s Independence Square? The letter is shown in a video of a UN Security Council session, being read aloud by then-Russian UN rep Vitaly Churkin. Yet this week, both the Russian government and Yanukovich himself deny it ever existed. Now you see it, now you don’t! What about the man who was shown reading it? Churkin, too, alas, is no longer with us: He died suddenly of unexplained causes Feb. 20, just when the Ukrainian authorities were preparing to put Yanukovich on trial for high treason. Coincidence? What about the death of another potentially damning witness against Yanukovich – former Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov, assassinated outside a Kiev hotel on March 23?


    Even if it can’t stop Kiev from prosecuting Yanukovich, Moscow can at least pay it back in its own coin. Russian Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin told Rossiiskaya gazeta this week that the IC is currently investigating criminal cases against officials in the post-Yanukovich government. The charges, explains Bastrykin (apparently quoting chapter and verse from the stack of law books on his desk), include “infringement upon the life and health of Donetsk Basin civilians,” involving “the use of weapons of mass destruction and other means and methods of warfare prohibited by international law.”


    Does framing the Ukraine issue this way play a part in a larger campaign on Russia’s part to raise its status in the international community? Could be. Mikhail Fishman and Matthew Kupfer write in The Moscow Times that Putin’s bold moves in Ukraine and Syria have combined with external factors – such as Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the US and the declining anti-Russia trend in Europe to burnish the Kremlin’s global image. “These events have all catapulted Putin to the position of a powerful broker in the international arena and fulfilled the country’s longstanding desire for international influence.”


    But perhaps that influence has gone too far. Tatyana Stanovaya argues in Republic.ru that rumors about Putin attempting to influence the French presidential election have some factual basis. At the very least, there is a monetary trail connecting him with right-wing candidate François Fillon. Stanovaya predicts that Putin’s courting of the “new West” will backfire: “The Kremlin’s desire to ride a wave of new trends in the West, manifested in the rise of nontraditional and patriotically antiglobalist forces, will result in those forces gradually turning against Putin.”


    Still, why does Putin need a rosy future when there’s plenty of green to go around? Most Russians still have their emerald-colored glasses on, and the few who have taken them off are getting green splashed in their eyes in liquid form.


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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