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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 #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 #29

    Letter From the Editors: July 14-20, 2014

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    The conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to show no end in sight. Several border incidents in the past week have raised the stakes for both Russia and Ukraine. Aleksei Leshchenko, vice-president of the Gorshenin Institute, says that the Russian government is taking a duplicitous stance on the situation: While Moscow says it advocates a peaceful settlement to what it calls a Ukrainian domestic conflict, in reality it is actively perpetuating violence it could easily stop. Russia continues to firmly deny any direct or indirect military involvement in eastern Ukraine, but armed separatists there are wielding advanced weaponry that presumably ordinary citizens would not have the knowledge to operate, raising suspicions that the military equipment and personnel involved in the fighting are actually from Russia. As if to prove that point, a Ukrainian military transport plane was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile (the separatists claim it was captured from Ukrainian forces), and Ukrainian authorities assert that Russian multiple launch rocket systems have repeatedly crossed into Ukraine to launch attacks on Ukrainian forces.

    In addition to its active military campaign, separatists in Novorossia, i.e., Ukraine’s rebellious Russian-speaking provinces, have also been busy working on formulating a more concrete political campaign, adopting a manifesto that reads like a founding document of a Soviet Union 2.0. The manifesto denounces capitalism and promises the nationalization of enterprises. Aleksei Gorbachov and Darya Garmonenko write that such talk certainly makes the separatists’ curators in Moscow wary. (Ironically, Russia’s economic system is becoming increasingly Sovietesque in its own right, according to Valery Zubov. Our second set of featured articles has his and other perspectives on some economic policy drama currently unfolding in Russia.) It is clear that while Putin is all for fueling pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine, the separatists’ political agenda does not fit into his geopolitical vision for the region. In fact, recent developments in Ukraine show that not all the cards are falling the way Putin would desire or intend. Could he have his back against the wall by a monster he created? The separatists are begging for more military and moral support, and Russian citizens, encouraged by Russia’s Communists and Liberal Democrats, are pushing their government to all but go to war with Ukraine on behalf of the rebels. The Kremlin may have set in motion a machine it would now like to stop.

    Meanwhile, Russian media are upping their attacks on the US, denigrating it for its allegedly overbearing attitude on the global stage. An Ekspert editorial points out the folly of Washington’s efforts to get the world to play by its rules, while Fyodor Lukyanov contends that US initiatives to promote American-style democracy throughout the world in the last decade have ultimately proven disastrous. The EU, Washington’s junior partner in the latest round of Russia-bashing, is also taking a drubbing in the Russian media, albeit not so soundly. Andrei Yermolayev chastises the EU for being too quick to see a political motive in all of Russia’s business dealings, particularly with regard to the South Stream pipeline, which Brussels wants shut down. Mikhail Krutikhin, however, writes that the Kremlin’s overblown, pie-in-the-sky economic projects are indeed nothing but political, and will ultimately put Russia in bondage to China. Not necessarily so, argues Andranik Migranyan: He views the Russia-China relationship as strong and based on mutual respect, which is more than can be said of Russia’s relations with the US. According to him, when he asked American panelists at a recent Washington seminar whether they see Russia as a “whipping boy or an errand boy,” they were hard pressed to say exactly how they view Russia.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 12-18, 2015

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    Russia’s Syria Strategy Under the Microscope; Findings of MH17 Disaster Probe Released; Russia’s Investment Strategy in Question

    Russia is now a few weeks into its air campaign in Syria. What’s Russia’s strategy, objective and endgame? Is it coming to the aid of its beleaguered Syrian ally? Is it seeking to take out ISIS before it gains a foothold in Russia? Is it trying to flex its muscles for the West and even drag it into a proxy war? Or is it mainly trying to distract attention from the Ukraine conflict?

    Pro-Kremlin pundits have an idealized vision of a five-month campaign that would end as soon as Bashar Assad’s ground offensive takes hold and ISIS is driven from Syria. According to Pyotr Skorobogaty, Russia’s goal is to push the radical Islamist fighters into Iraq, which is the US’s zone of responsibility, in order to make life difficult for Washington. He says that for its part, the US is trying to get as many Islamist fighters to go from Iraq to Syria, to make life difficult for Assad. So, in his analysis, this conflict is a muscle-flexing game between the Russian and the US militaries. Other commentators say the Syria intervention is really a hydrocarbons game between Russia and the US. Each side has a vested interest in securing the oil and gas fields currently under ISIS’s control.

    Kira Latukhina says, “Russia’s objective in Syria is to stabilize the legitimate government and pave the way to seek a political compromise.” According to Putin, this will be achieved militarily. He believes the US and its allies should simply turn the fight against ISIS in Syria over to him, especially since he has the permission of Syria’s government to conduct military operations in Syria – unlike other nations. The US should just tell Russia where the targets are, and Russia’s bombs and missiles will take them out, since the US and dozens of other countries are not getting the job done.

    Russia leveled similar charges against the Dutch Safety Board, which this week released its final report on the investigation into the causes of the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine. The DSB concluded that a 9N314M warhead fired from a 9M38 Buk surface-to-air missile system was responsible for the plane’s destruction, but, according to Rosaviatsia deputy director Oleg Storchevoi, investigators acted improperly by failing to consider crucial evidence supplied by the Russian side. Yulia Latynina, on the other hand, believes that the investigators didn’t go far enough. She says they should have assigned responsibility for the missile launch. The overly cautious conclusions of the investigators just validate Putin’s view that European politicians are spineless and weak.

    Disappointment and disagreement were also hallmarks of the annual “Russia Calling!” forum, held this week in Moscow. Russia’s economic elite debated the nature of the economic crisis (some even argued that Russia isn’t in crisis, even though the economy is experiencing about -4% growth) and discussed investment priorities under the new conditions. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov took issue with Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev for advocating higher investment in the oil industry. That longtime strategy isn’t working, Siluanov contended. Investment should instead be directed to other areas of the economy. However, judging by Putin’s reaction, it seems like the Russian budget will continue to prop up his oil-baron buddies. Georgy Neyaskin writes that popular buzzwords used during the forum – e.g., “structural reform” and “economic diversification” – have become nothing but hollow mantras with little real meaning or substance. What this indicates, and what no one talked about, he says, is the fact that Russia has no long-term economic strategy whatsoever. With so many unanswered questions about Russia’s game plans for Ukraine, Syria and the economy, one has to wonder what exactly goes on during Kremlin “strategy” sessions. Surely Putin can’t be flying by the seat of his pants, right?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 10-16, 2014

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    Two Presidents in a Boat, to Say Nothing of Ukraine

    “Loneliness and mistrust. Mistrust as the cause of loneliness, and at the same time, its consequence.” Those are the words columnist Andrei Kolesnikov uses to describe Putin’s current state. The same could be said of Russia in general. Finding itself increasingly isolated, Russia seems to be caught in a historical void, stuck between a past that will never return and a future that has failed to materialize. As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stanislav Belkovsky comments that Russia was a victor in the cold war – just like the US and Europe. After all, it was born out of the ruins of the USSR. So what went wrong? Why is the Russian leadership increasingly looking to the past, instead of the future? And who is to blame, Russia or the West? Both, maintains Konstantin Dobrynin. The West failed to welcome Russia into the European family, instead using the former empire’s weakness to its own advantage. Russia, for its part, got lost somewhere in the rubble of the Soviet Union. It failed to create a new identity for itself, hence the growing nostalgia for the past.

    The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics also find themselves increasingly alone. Kiev this week announced it was suspending budgetary payments to the breakaways – meaning pensioners and others in the LPR and DPR who had been receiving social welfare payments will lose all means of support, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. The LPR and DPR leadership was furious with the decision, accusing Kiev of backstabbing its own citizens. According to expert Aleksandr Kazakov, these budget payments were basically the only source of revenue for the quasi-republics.

    To gain recognition, LPR and DPR leaders set off on a “world tour” – or at least, to visit those countries that would have them (i.e., those that have poor relations with the US). That list includes Cuba and Venezuela. The latter recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but will it do the same with Novorossia? Hardly, says political analyst Aleksei Makarkin. Caracas recognized the breakaway Caucasus republics only after Moscow did – and this time, even Russia has yet to give full legitimacy to its pet project in Ukraine. So the LPR and DPR shouldn’t hold their breath.

    Is there a way out of mounting mistrust, loneliness and bitterness? In an interview with Novaya gazeta, Ekho Moskvy radio station’s editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov remains optimistic about Russia’s future. Despite finding himself at loggerheads with the company’s management (Ekho Moskvy is owned by Gazprom Media), Venediktov said he did not see the station being closed down in the near future. He also believes help often comes from unexpected places – such as the ruling elite’s inner circle. As an example, he says both Khrushchev and Gorbachev came from the Politburo. So perhaps Russia’s next reformer is already a familiar face.

    Finally, political analyst Sergei Markov comes to the rescue of yet another lonely soul – US President Barack Obama, who recently suffered a humiliating defeat as Republicans took control of both chambers of the US Congress. In defending Obama’s policies, Markov points out that it’s time Russia paid the US president the respect he’s due. Only then can Russia and the US come together to end the crisis in Ukraine and address other mounting global problems. Ironically, it seems like Obama and Putin have found themselves in the same boat. The question is, what’s their next move?

    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 #26

    Letter From the Editors: June 22-28, 2015

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    To Fear or Not to Fear, That Is the Question.

    Unfounded or not, there seems to be plenty of fear to go around these days. This week, many Russian commentators and analysts were preoccupied by looming threats both hypothetical and real, be it ISIS, China, “color revolutions,” Ukraine or the US.

    ISIS, the most realistic threat in the lineup, is making inroads in Russia’s neighboring Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan, where, according to Arkady Dubnov, Moscow’s failure to ensure that the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan has a voice in local politics is creating a breeding ground for radical Islam. This virulent strain of Islam is also on the rise in the Caucasus region of Russia. Some Muslim youth in Russia, disillusioned with the sociopolitical and economic situation at home, see a brighter future in the ranks of ISIS, says Aleksandr Shumilin.

    China, next on the list of bugaboos and the subject of the third feature in this issue, is a bit of an enigma. The popular perception is that China is taking advantage of Russia’s relative weakness to make expansive inroads in Russia’s Far East. This is largely a misconception, say analysts Fyodor Lukyanov and Georgy Neyaskin, even though reports that a Chinese agricultural firm is about to lease large swathes of Russian farmland in Transbaikal Territory do little to assuage such fears.

    Color revolutions. Russia’s anti-Western spin doctors see them everywhere, and the West – the US in particular – is inevitably behind them, in their opinion. The latest country facing the threat of “revolution” is Armenia, where planned hikes in electricity prices are being met with fierce public opposition in the capital. Denis Tukmakov notes that it is students, not elderly pensioners – the social group most likely to be affected by the plan – who are gathering in the streets. What’s more, they are making uncomfortable connections between the rate increases and Russia, which is certainly direct evidence that the West is behind this, according to the journalist.

    Of course, when it comes to fears, the biggest is always open war, which these days is increasingly (and alarmingly) a real concern of top brass in NATO and Russia. A recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers ended with Russia and the alliance trading accusations of military posturing. In response to what it sees as increased Russian aggression, the North Atlantic organization is more than doubling the size of its rapid response force, and the US is positioning heavy military hardware in the Baltic states.

    This, of course, comes in response to perceived Russian interference in Ukraine, a country that is a hotbed for all sorts of fears, real and imagined. The newly appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Province, Mikhail Saakashvili, is concerned that separatist sentiment is rising in Bessarabia and will result in the declaration of yet another “people’s republic” in Ukraine. Meanwhile, former rebel commanders of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics are saying that they don’t rule out a complete collapse of the Minsk agreements that are precariously preventing all-out war between Ukraine, Russia and the West.

    All-out war is very much on the mind of Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who recently accused the US of wishing that Russia did not exist. Is he off his rocker, or is he right to be shaking in his boots (perhaps more from Russia’s inadequacies than anything else, according to Tatyana Stanovaya)? Actually, he might not be the most delusional of Russia’s paranoid security officials. A certain Russian major general who claimed to have developed technologies to read the minds of Western leaders once said he discovered in the brain of then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright a pathological hatred of all Slavs. I don’t know what is more disturbing: that he made such claims or that they are earnestly believed by some Russians, including among the upper echelons of power.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #6

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 8-14, 2016

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    Biggest Losers of the Week: Yatsenyuk, Medvedev and Kolokoltsev Battle It Out for the Title

    In the game of life – and big politics – there will always be winners and losers. But why should the former get all the attention? Take Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, for instance. He is the undeniable star of Ukraine’s latest political crisis. “Ukrainians consider the current cabinet headed by Arseny Yatsenyuk the worst government in the history of independent Ukraine,” writes Izvestia. His approval rating is at a “laughably low” 1%. And this despite the fact that Yatsenyuk’s National Front came in second in the 2014 parliamentary elections!

    The Supreme Rada has one week to decide what to do with this “political corpse” – that’s when Yatsenyuk will present a report in the Rada on the government’s work since December 2014. Following that, the deputies will have to decide whether to keep him around for another year, or kick him to the curb (along with the cabinet, which is just as unpopular).

    But not everything is as simple as it seems. For now, Yatsenyuk is drawing the people’s ire for declining living standards, continued government corruption and a lack of progress on privatization. But what happens if he is dismissed? According to Vitaly Portnikov, the other ruling coalition parties “will end up in a worst-case scenario: They will be held fully responsible for all of the executive branch’s further actions.” Meanwhile, given how quickly former economic development and trade minister Abromavicius went from zero to hero in the voters’ eyes following his resignation, Yatsenyuk could still rebuild his tarnished reputation just in time for early parliamentary elections. So the biggest loser of Ukrainian politics may have the last laugh yet.

    Will his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev be so lucky? Medvedev is tasked with getting United Russia into the Duma in the upcoming elections. Given the party’s declining popularity, it promises to be an uphill battle. What’s more, Medvedev gets to take the heat from the left – the Communists and A Just Russia – for a declining economic situation. And this time, United Russia is “headed by Medvedev, not Putin. All their criticisms will target the prime minister, while Putin will remain above the fray during a crisis,” writes commentator Tatyana Stanovaya.

    As if that weren’t enough, PM Medvedev got to be Russia’s envoy to the Munich Security Conference. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was basically laughed off the stage as he attempted to toe the official line and justify Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. This year, the atmosphere isn’t much cozier (let’s just say Sen. John McCain is one of the participants). But Medvedev is seen as “the West’s Russian sweetheart,” writes The Moscow Times. And his mission is to seek the end of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Even the Kremlin realizes this will not be an easy task: According to political analyst Mark Galeotti, “were the Russians expecting a diplomatic triumph, Putin likely would have gone.”

    The final biggest loser of the week is trying to keep a handle on things back home. Dubbed “the worst internal affairs minister in Russia’s entire post-Soviet history” by Oleg Kashin, Vladimir Kolokoltsev gets called to task for letting the Chechen branch of the ministry he supposedly oversees run rampant in the Russian capital. According to Kashin, the people who “get involved in the vilest criminal affairs report to Vladimir Kolokoltsev.” The murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov is just one instance that comes to mind. And no matter how Kolokoltsev may rationalize that terrifying trend, the fact is he no longer controls his subordinates. The tail is wagging the dog.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #10

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

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    Issue #10 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #10 Table of Contents

    Ramzan Kadyrov Rushes to Ukraine’s Rescue; and Germany’s Unenviable Position

    What do Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovich and Ramzan Kadyrov have in common? Besides a penchant for tightening the screws, the above troika shared their feelings with the press this week. Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, missing for a week (ever since he disappeared in Kharkov), resurfaced in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he gave  a press conference stating that he is still the only legitimate leader of Ukraine. Referring to the new government regime as “fascist thugs,” the exiled leader condemned their Western supporters and called for an end to the violence that has engulfed Ukraine.

    Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, not to be outdone, chimed in with a call to friendship among the peoples – Russian, Chechen and Ukrainian – on the pages of Izvestia. He also harshly condemned Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh for calling on Chechen outlaw Doku Umarov to intensify terrorist attacks against Russia.

    In a press appearance of his own from Novo-Ogaryovo, Vladimir Putin supported Yanukovich, lamented the difficult fate of simple Ukrainians over the past few geopolitically charged centuries, and offered his support to Yanukovich, as reported by Nezavisimaya gazeta. At the same time, Putin struck a conciliatory tone on the Crimea, stating that even though the Russian Federation Council this week authorized him to use force if necessary, that time has not yet come.

    Kiev doesn’t seem to be buying, however – the new government has announced a mass mobilization and training exercises to be held across Ukraine. Some experts, such as Viktor Davydov of the Moscow Times, are already comparing Putin’s appetites to those of Hitler and drawing parallels between the Crimea and the Austrian Anschluss. Yulia Latynina, always one to look on the practical side of things, draws up her own list of pros and cons on annexing the Crimea – and declares the price too high for Russia. Making the disputed peninsula a part of Russia is also going to pose some financial and purely infrastructural costs, writes Kommersant – from bringing pensions in line with the Russian average to figuring out how to bypass Ukraine to get gas and other necessities to the cut-off region.

    Finally, the Crimean crisis has spooked some of Russia’s CIS neighbors. Moldova, for instance, is calling on NATO troops to make sure that Russia doesn’t repeat the Crimean scenario with Transnistria – another long-simmering territorial dispute.

    The EU, on the other hand, is more spooked by the prospect of introducing sanctions against Russia, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. Germany in particular is going to feel the sting, since Russia happens to be the fourth largest partner for the German machine-building industry. Experts point out that Europe is being pressured into punishing Russia economically by the US – which has very little at stake, unlike the Europeans. Will economic implications triumph over political considerations? It can’t be ruled out. After all, to quote George Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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