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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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    Issue #36 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #36 Table of Contents

    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 #40

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



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    Issue #40 Letter From the Editors
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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 #31

    Letter From the Editors: July 29-August 4, 2013


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    Everyone enjoys a good, decisive victory, and Russians are certainly no exception. In Leonid Radzikhovsky’s view, that may explain why so many Russians – who, in his view, have little appreciation for half measures – were disappointed in the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on Russia’s handling of the Yukos case: They were hoping for a smackdown that would have left one side or the other – the Russian government or Khodorkovsky/Lebedev – with at least a black eye, if not down for the count. Instead, both sides came away more or less equally bruised from what was, by many accounts, a fairly balanced verdict.


    Russia is gearing up for another contest that is just around the corner: the Sept. 8 regional elections, which will pit establishment heavyweights against tenacious underdogs. Nikolai Petrov believes the “orchestrated” fight in the Moscow mayoral election will give Russians just enough feeling that they have skin in the political game to prevent them from taking to the streets. According to Igor Bunin, those in power have had to scramble to add a few more plays to their playbook in the political season that’s soon drawing to a close. He believes that by altering the rules of the game and reshuffling some of the key players, the establishment may have managed to stay in the game a bit longer. Time will tell.


    It turns out that Russia may have won the match with the US in its drawn-out head-to-head over Edward Snowden. Commentator Eduard Limonov believes Russia may have even picked up some more fans among the international community when it beat the US at its own game by granting the NSA leaker political asylum. Vasily Kashin contends that the US actually “won” by letting Russia “win.” Now the “foreign intelligence collaborator” will languish in exile in Russia, where he will soon be forgotten by those who might otherwise idolize him.


    For their part, commentators Sergei Kazyonnov and Vladimir Kumachov want to see an end to the rivalry between the US and Russia. They have had enough of the bickering between the US and Russian presidents, and urge the two leaders to pragmatically and responsibly sort out their differences.


    China, another country that for various reasons has many international players on edge, poses a perplexing problem for Russia. While some commentators are wary of the moves China is making (will Beijing’s increasing assertiveness lead to aggression?), Yevgeny Bazhanov feels China and Russia are better suited as teammates than opponents on the geopolitical playing field.


    This week, it was more than just sinister games of West and East that riled the Russian president. Vladimir Putin is crying foul over a particularly odious form of rule-bending that recently garnered attention in Russia after a police officer was viciously beaten by Dagestani workers in a Moscow market who were defending one of their own from arrest. The officer’s comrades calmly stood by and watched because – and every Russian knows this, according to Putin – market vendors pay the cops to turn a blind eye to their loose interpretation of Russia’s laws. Maksim Glikin opines that the informal rules of the marketplace are the only law that migrant merchants respect. Recent survey data show many Russians increasingly associate immigrants with crime, but maybe it is the criminality of the supposed crime-stoppers that is the real issue.


    The Russian president is not the only one vexed by cheap shots. Putin is the one playing dirty pool in the eyes of Ukrainian political observers. During a visit to that country, the Russian president pandered to Ukrainians’ sense of spiritual and historical oneness with Russia to pitch Eurasian (read: Russian) integration as a more attractive alternative to European integration. And, to top it off, he cut short a meeting with the Ukrainian president to spend time with a close friend and pro-Russian lobbyist, Viktor Medvedchuk. That perhaps should come as no surprise: Yekaterina Yuryeva writes that Putin has always gone out of his way for his pals, no matter how morally unscrupulous some of them may be.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #28

    Letter From the Editors: July 8-14, 2013


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    Issue #28 Letter From the Editors
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    “Are you coming or going?”


    “I don’t know. Both.”


    That exchange from “The Terminal” just about sums up the situation of Edward Snowden, who, like Tom Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie, has found himself stranded in an airport terminal with no country to call home. Perhaps even more intriguing than the young NSA whistleblower’s revelations about US intelligence service activities is the diplomatic fallout stemming from the US’s efforts to haul him in. Will the Snowden affair expose underlying geopolitical fault lines in traditional interstate relations and alliances?


    Ironically, Snowden may end up hanging his hat in Russia, where the sort of government overreach he apparently finds so morally unconscionable thrives. As if to showcase the extent of that overreach, Russian authorities arrested on bribery charges one of Russia’s few popularly elected opposition figures, Yaroslavl Mayor and Civic Platform party member Yevgeny Urlashov. He joins a list of more than 100 Russian mayors who have been dismissed or convicted of a crime in what many see as overt, Soviet-inspired political persecution – complete with show trials. Is Putin systematically purging Russia’s political system in order to preserve it (as Sergei Markov opines) or to prevail over it?


    Russian government overreach also found expression this week in (at least) two other incidents: A Moscow court convicted William Browder and Sergei Magnitsky – the former in absentia, and the latter posthumously – of tax evasion. And the Prosecutor General’s Office reported to the Federation Council on the results of the government’s massive audit earlier this year of Russia’s “foreign agents” – domestic NGOs. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika found pervasive instances of foreign funding amounting to a total of 30.8 billion rubles over the period of November 2012 to April 2013. (He came close to vindicating Putin’s statement – preposterous in the view of many experts – that Russian NGOs had received $1 billion in foreign funding in the first four months of 2013!)


    Complementing (underlying?) these incidents of government overreach is a nascent official policy line that Igor Bunin and Aleksei Makarkin term “nonpaternalistic conservatism” – conservative sociopolitical thinking coupled with a desire to dismantle the paternalistic welfare spending left over from the former Soviet social system.


    Are the government’s policies and actions designed to impact the upcoming regional elections, and will they have the desired effect? Despite new polling data suggesting a shift in antigovernment sentiments from Moscow to the provinces, regime politicians in the capital are doing their best to use the Sept. 8 regional elections to shore up legitimacy – and they are doing so by welcoming certain opposition figures to compete against them, believing that opposition icons, such as Aleksei Navalny, don’t stand a chance against them. But just how much should they be willing to bet on that?


    Russia is at a tipping point. Political analyst Georgy Bovt believes Russians are at risk of soon losing all faith in democratic processes, and according to Semyon Novoprudsky, the opposition ought to realize by now that elections in Putin’s Russia will not bring regime change. Those two assessments don’t bode well for the ruling elite. The Russian people are pressing them with that question posed earlier: “Are you coming or going?” And “both” is not a viable answer.


    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor/Translator


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

    Letter From the Editors: August 12-18, 2013


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


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


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


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


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


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


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Lots of interesting news coming out of Russia right now, and our latest issue of The Current Digest of the Russian Press (CDRP) is just bursting with articles from Russian newspapers on everything that's been going on during the week - all carefully translated into English. Be sure to check out this week's Letter From the Editors below, or grab the PDF here, for a nice round up of the issue's various stories. Enjoy!

    Letter From the Editors: June 17-23, 2013

    “Wanted: candidates for 2013 Moscow mayoral election; only incumbents need apply.” That could just as well be a blurb in political want ads circulating in Moscow these days. The cards are being shuffled for an early Moscow mayoral election called for by “resigning” incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, but it seems the deck is stacked in his favor and other leading players are being kept from the table. How? Vladimir Ryzhkov cites administrative barriers: classic elements of the Kremlin’s “managed democracy” strategy. But the Kremlin needs someone their man could beat in a staged race in order to give him legitimacy, right – or would that be too much of a risk?


    Remember how in the previous issue of the Digest, Putin was criticized for making dubious, irresponsible speculations about Russia’s history? Well, he’s at it again, this time making preposterous claims about the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, which was fought in 2006 or thereabouts, according to the logic of the Russian president’s statements. He also offered grossly inflated estimates of the number of Jews in the upper echelons of the early Soviet leadership. Is Putin simply that out of touch with reality, or is he seeking to recast Russia’s national narrative for political purposes at a time when the economy is showing signs of floundering, and when society – not to mention his own Human Rights Council – is demanding clarifications regarding his administration’s campaign against “foreign agents” (nonprofit organizations)?


    Another out-of-the-blue Putin remark – that Russia’s Higher Court of Arbitration is to merge with the Supreme Court – has many in the legal field scratching their heads. Is this further evidence that Putin has gotten used to living in his own idealistic little bubble, saying whatever he feels like saying?


    Despite the authorities’ tight management practices, it seems someone was able to break through administrative barriers to pull a malicious joke on Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin. An official- looking dispatch was released to news agencies announcing Yakunin’s dismissal. The press ran with the story, not bothering to verify the source or the veracity of the release. Who pulled the hoax and why?


    Ukraine and Belarus might be moving closer toward rapprochement: The countries’ presidents signed a border treaty, but Minsk may have signed it contingent on future Ukrainian purchase orders from Belarus’s overstocked truck and tractor supplies. It seems Ukraine may soon do a little wheeling and dealing of its own with Russia over the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet – could it tie a modernization agreement to a more advantageous gas price? And Kyrgyzstan’s parliament this week has decided to ask President Atambayev to give the US military the boot a few months before an agreement on its presence there is set to expire.


    The US also gets no love from commentator Yevgeny Shestakov, who criticizes the US for using the Syrian conflict as a means to return to a bygone era of being able to act with impunity wherever and whenever. Pavel Felgengauer, on the other hand, says it’s time the West broadened its involvement in that country, as foreign radical Islamists are taking the fight to a new, bloody level on behalf of the Assad regime.


    Those assessments come against the backdrop of a G-8 summit, where, according to some commentators, Russia and the US failed to see eye to eye on more than just the Syrian conflict: The Nunn-Lugar program, counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation (and by extension, missile defense) were among other topics of bilateral discussion. By and large, the summit showcased a resurgent Russia that is flexing its muscles to impress the world, writes commentator Aleksei Mukhin. Or maybe, as Semyon Novoprudsky contends, Russia is merely following a pariah’s path toward self-isolation?

     

    Matthew Larson,
    Translator/Copy Editor

     


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  • Russia, Georgia War 5 Years Later

    Save 50% on Countdown to War in Georgia


    It's been five years since Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war and even today relations between the two countries remain at an impasse. In recent weeks, Moscow has said it will restore diplomatic ties with Georgia if Tbilisi admits it started the war, while Tbilisi has made it clear that it's willing to give a little, but won’t budge on its demand that Abkhazia and South Ossetia be returned to Georgian control.


    Clearly there is no love lost between these two countries, but what got things so heated that an all-out war broke out in August 2008? What was so special about the two virtually unknown republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Why did Putin and Medvedev enjoy tremendous support from throughout Russia for their actions in Georgia?


    Countdown to War in Georgia: Russia's Foreign Policy and Media Coverage of the Conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia sheds light on these important questions by providing in-depth coverage of Russian perspectives on this long-developing crisis. Covering the period from 1989 to late August 2008, this book includes articles from some of the most widely read newspapers and foreign policy and security publications in the Russian Federation today, all translated into English.


    To mark the fifth anniversary of the war, we are offering an exclusive 50% discount on print copies of Countdown to War in Georgia ($39.98 instead of the regular price of $79.95).


    Don't delay - Countdown to War in Georgia is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in gaining a perspective on these events other than those seen in the Western media, and is also an important tool for understanding Russia's overall policy toward Georgia and the West.


    Contact books@eastview.com to place your order. Orders must be placed by September 30, 2013. Please mention code "GEORGIA5" when placing your order.


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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #39

    Letter From the Editors: September 23-29, 2013


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    And the Award Goes to…Pinpointing the Most and Least Decisive Leaders of the Week


    Decisions, decisions – this week, while some struggled with making them, others steamed on ahead, consequences be damned. Outgoing Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, for example, did not pull any punches in his speech at the UN General Assembly. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union project an attempt to resurrect a lost empire, then said that Russia’s days in the Caucasus are numbered, and that Putin will find himself on the trash heap of history sooner rather than later. “It makes me sick when KGB officer Vladimir Putin lectures the world about freedom, values and democracy,” the Georgian leader railed. The speech caused Russia’s entire delegation to walk out in protest, while Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called it Russophobic. Even in his homeland, Mr. Saakashvili’s speech was a bombshell – Georgians worry that their leader’s latest tirade will undo whatever fragile hints for rapprochement with Russia there are, writes Izvestia (although Georgians still agree with a lot of what their president said).


    The Russian government, for its part, remains unwavering in its decision to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences. Yulia Latynina laments that this reform spells the end of one of the world’s oldest and most respected academic institutions, but it looks like there is no turning back.


    In the post-Soviet space, China continues to show Russia how it’s done, in terms of winning influence. While Moscow’s policy for its former zone of influence is a clumsy carrot-and-stick approach (with the stick winning out), Beijing is subscribing to the mantra of “slow and steady wins the race.” This week, it signed a 50-year lease agreement for 3 million hectares of Ukrainian farmland. According to expert Andrei Ostrovsky, this latest move is not about supplying China’s vast population with food – rather, Beijing is once again cleverly using economic leverage to spread its influence in the CIS and even get a better foothold in Europe.


    That sort of decisiveness and perseverance is mirrored by Germany, and particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel. Political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov calls Merkel one of the last true leaders in Europe, keeping her country humming like a well-oiled machine while the rest of Europe is caught up in a crisis. He even calls Germany the China of the EU. But as Ms. Merkel stands poised to take over the reins and rebuild the EU, can she accomplish what needs to be done without resurrecting some negative associations about a strong Germany? After all, when it comes to that country’s history in the first half of the 20th century, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.


    The trophy for indecisiveness this week goes to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin (they’ll just have to share). While Medvedev can’t seem to decide whether the Russian economy is in crisis or not, Putin seems outright allergic to making any key decisions during a crisis. According to Sergei Aleksashenko, that is reminiscent of the indecisiveness of Soviet leaders in 1989-1991, which eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Can Putin, who called the USSR’s demise the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, finally make the necessary political decisions to avert yet another disaster? Or will he emulate his Soviet role models to the bitter end?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #26

    Letter From the Editors: June 24-30, 2013


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    All (Not) Quiet on the Economic Front; the Looming Afghan Precipice; and the Logic of Edward Snowden

    Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky marks his 50th birthday this week in Correctional Colony No. 7 in Karelia. His current place of residence didn’t stop Russian and Western politicians, as well as writer Boris Akunin and prominent actor Sergei Yursky, from wishing the embattled oligarch a happy birthday. For his part, Khodorkovsky shared his thoughts on life in prison and the state of Russian politics in an interview with The New Times. Despite what he says is “a critical shortage of mutual trust and ability to self-organize” in society, Khodorkovsky still believes that a brighter political future for Russia is possible.


    While Khodorkovsky lost some of his illusions while in prison (like his faith in the Russian justice system), another “renegade” is instead choosing to bank on Russia – Edward Snowden, who continues his sojourn at the Sheremetyevo airport to the delight of journalists. Some Russian politicians, such as Aleksei Pushkov, head of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, are also jumping on the Snowden bandwagon. Pushkov accused the US of persecuting Snowden and called the NSA leaker a political dissident and a human rights activist. But not everyone is as keen to declare Snowden an American Sakharov – The Moscow Times’s Michael Bohm wonders how supposed human rights crusader Snowden can ask for protection from a state where the FSB illegally wiretaps the opposition’s phones and considers home-grown whistleblower Aleksei Navalny a US State Department lackey bent on bringing down the Russian state from within.


    To further fight erosion from within, the Duma introduced a bill this week to combat “rehabilitation of Nazism.” Vedomosti argues that canonizing an interpretation of World War II could result in self-censorship in academic circles. The law, writes Vedomosti, is phrased ambiguously and could be used to violate freedom of speech.


    Russia got some grim economic news this week, as well. According to economics expert Vladislav Inozemtsev, budget revenues are expected to plateau this year. The Kremlin has taken on too many social obligations, he argues, while its overreliance on megaprojects is not bringing in the expected income. Generally, that’s because such projects breed corruption and fail to boost the employment rate – construction for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vladivostok, for example, relied on migrant workers who sent earnings back home. Private investment, Inozemtsev writes, is the only way to really boost Russia’s stalled economy.


    The problem with the Russian economy, echoes columnist Andrei Kolesnikov, is that President Putin is setting contradictory goals for his economic team – increasing revenues without cutting budgetary spending. Meanwhile, 20 of the largest state-controlled corporations, which reported profits of nearly 4 trillion rubles, are bringing in almost no return on investment. So where is all this money going, wonders politician Vladimir Milov. Isn’t it time for the Russian government to take a closer look at its many inefficient state projects?


    Speaking of financial black holes, that honor in the international arena goes to Afghanistan this week. In his scathing analysis of the situation in that country, Sovetskaya Rossia’s Sergei Kozhemyakin writes that the Western coalition forces (read: Washington) have no interest in a strong and stable Afghanistan. How else to explain NATO forces destroying thousands of tons of equipment prior to withdrawing when the Afghan Armed Forces are desperately short on such basics as tanks and armored personnel carriers? The author also points to the country’s splintered political system and Kabul’s inability to maintain centralized control as additional destabilization factors that were intentionally created by the West. Meanwhile, a deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan threatens to spill over into the bordering CIS countries. The Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization both held meetings this week to figure out a strategy on the Afghan front. Will their efforts pay off? Only time will tell.


    Xenia Grushetsky
    Managing Editor


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

    Letter From the Editors: September 16-22, 2013


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    Issue #38 Table of Contents

    Polar Explorations – Why Talk Is Cheap


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


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


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


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


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


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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