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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 Letter From the Editors
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    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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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #37

    Letter From the Editors: September 9-15, 2013

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    Issue #37 Letter From the Editors
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    “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. . . . [W]e must not forget that God created us equal.” – Russian President Vladimir Putin

    Putin addressed these words to “the American people and their political leaders” in an op-ed published in The New York Times on Sept. 11, 2013. The piece as a whole was an appeal to the US not to use force against Syria in response to the use of toxic gas, but rather to get on board with Russia’s proposal that Damascus hand over its chemical weapons. The irony of this gesture toward America was not lost on many political pundits: For example, Mikhail Minakov argues that the post-Soviet world has come to imagine the West as its moral and political conscience – and yet here is the leader of Russia lecturing the West on the dangers of war.

    Nonetheless, Moscow’s proposal to Damascus was a bold and effective diplomatic move. Fyodor Lukyanov frames it as a win-win for everyone: The US saves face by not having to back up its threat of force, or back down from it; Syria gets to make a gesture of goodwill; and Russia gets to be the country that saved the world from a major war.

    This is an “exceptional” situation for Moscow (we hope the Russian president will pardon the expression). This week also saw an exceptional situation in Moscow: On Sept. 8, voters had an opportunity to choose between at least two mayoral candidates who had a fighting chance – incumbent Sergei Sobyanin and oppositionist Aleksei Navalny. Navalny lost, as expected, but (as Sergei Rusev put it) the elections were fair and the sky didn’t fall. Strong showings by opposition candidates in other cities on the “single day of voting” embolden some to say that the majority United Russia party is losing its edge for good. Vladislav Inozemtsev even calls for a new opposition platform, which he calls “non-united Russia.” Even so, there are suspicions that the ruling elite have more resources in reserve to use in future elections. For example, Konstantin Simonov maintains that United Russia pulled its punches in the regional elections, but “from now on, the authorities are going to bring their best game.”

    On the international scene, one country that’s not pulling punches is China. Recently elected President Xi Jinping just completed a triumphant round of visits to Central Asia, where he signed a series of partnership agreements that will result in new oil field development, pipelines, railroads and other projects. This proactive foreign policy – some commentators even call it aggressive – decisively pulls together the tentative and fragmentary inroads that China had been making in the region, writes Aleksandr Knyazev. By contrast, he calls Russia’s policy “unfocused.”

    We could draw a parallel here to Moscow’s treatment of Belarus this week. Witness the confusing push and pull between fuel and energy minister Arkady Dvorkovich and Rosneft head Igor Sechin: The former announced a cutback in oil supplies to Minsk, then the latter almost immediately contradicted him.

    Partnership relations between big and small countries can be challenging. As Putin says, we are all created equal, but (to quote George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) some of us are more equal than others.

    Laurence Bogoslaw

    Copy 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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    Issue #36 Letter From the Editors
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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 #34-35

    Letter From the Editors: August 19-September 1, 2013

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    Issue #34-35 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #34-35 Table of Contents

    One of the most transformative periods in Russian history continues to be one of its most controversial. Twenty-two years later, the events of August 1991 receive little positive – if any – substantive coverage in the Russia media today, largely because Russians remain divided in their assessment of them and their significance. The result is a muddled national narrative that continues to plague Russia’s development, argue the commentators of the third set of featured articles in this issue. Vedomosti writes that the Putin regime is fearful of a repetition of the circumstances that led to its own birth. The fear of losing power often gives rise to hasty efforts to preserve it.

    While the Kremlin seemingly used to fear primarily the political opposition in the early years of the 21st century, now it also fears losing legitimacy in the eyes of the increasingly cynical Russian people. The presidential administration met on Aug. 23 with political experts to discuss how to boost the legitimacy, transparency and competitiveness of elections, and, ultimately, the image of the Russian government. In what Vedomosti views as another populist/political Putin venture, the Russian president visited flood-ravaged areas of Russia’s Far East. Such trips portray leaders in a benevolent light, but they must make good on the promises they make during such visits, writes Vedomosti.

    Another high-ranking Russian official, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, is dealing with what some consider to be a disaster (albeit of a different sort) in another far-flung region of Russia, the North Caucasus. The cabinet minister expressed his dissatisfaction with fiscal policies of the republics of that region that seem to require greater federal subsidies, but contribute less and less to federal coffers.

    On the other side of the Caucasus Mountains, the de facto Russian protectorates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are growing more discontented about their relations with Russia and Georgia. The two breakaway Georgian republics are frustrated with their lack of political recognition, as well as the lack of funding from Moscow, five years following the Russian-Georgian war.

    Russia and Ukraine recently concluded an international conflict of their own. A week-long “trade war” saw Russia close its borders to essentially all Ukrainian goods, in what one Russian official described as a precautionary measure in case Ukraine decides to deepen its relationship with the European. Kiev is expected to become an associate member of the European Union and join the European free trade zone in late November. Maksim Blant argues that Russia’s ill-conceived stunt aimed at compelling Ukraine to join its Customs Union further sullies its already tarnished image.

    On the subject of the Customs Union, Moscow received a rebuff from fellow member Belarus after that country’s authorities arrested a high-ranking Russian potash firm executive. Is the arrest Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s way of punishing Russia for treating him as merely a manager of a “Russian enterprise” and not a national leader? At any rate, the situation does little to inspire confidence in the viability of the Customs Union.

    Russia’s relations with the US have also turned frosty of late. In light of Russia’s growing anti-American stance, Washington is calling for a pause in the “reset” launched in 2009. Commentators expressing their views in this issue’s second set of featured articles advocate for a “reset of the reset” – a fundamentally new agenda for Russian-US relations that doesn’t rehash worn-out, cold war-era issues, but pragmatically addresses mutual and sovereign interests on equal terms.

    Another factor contributing to the recent cold snap in US-Russian relations is Syria. Recent confirmation of the use there of the chemical agent sarin has drastically complicated the protracted conflict in the war-torn country, as well as the positions of leading international actors, as our first set of featured articles detail. The question now is, what lies in store on the other side of the US president’s “red line” – and how will Russia react?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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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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  • From the Pages of Far Eastern Affairs: North Korea's International Economic Relations

    North Korea's International Economic Ties in the 21st Century and Prospects for Their Development under Kim Jong Un


    By Ludmila Zakharova, Ph.D. (Econ.), Senior Research Associate, Center for Korean Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Far Eastern Studies.
    Originally published in Far Eastern Affairs, No. 3, 2013, pp. 44-57.

    With the 21st century well underway, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) is still a country in nearly complete isolation from the world economy. The official juche ideology in economics is actually its desire to be self-sufficient (doing all by drawing on internal resources). North Korean scientists who happen to speak at international conferences insist that their country’s economy is “independent and modern” and that to be fully independent, North Korea “relies fully on its internal resources, such as natural materials and fuels, and uses the latest technologies” (information technologies, in the first place). Nuclear weapon tests and satellite launches are cited as proof of independence and advance of North Korea’s economic system.

    Whatever the official tenor, North Korea’s economy cannot develop in complete isolation from the outside world. In the second half of the 20th century, North Korea’s economic system was largely built up with foreign technological assistance using imported equipment and technologies. As the country’s economic ties with the outside world loosened in the 1990s, its GDP contracted significantly, and only started to recover slowly in the 2000s, not least because of its expanding foreign trade. North Korea today is a secretive country short on internal resources and long on military projects, its infrastructure and manufacturing plant in civilian industries severely in need of modernization. Energy and food shortages are major challenges confronting North Korea in its development prospects and forcing it to import fuel products and crude fuels, foodstuffs, and fertilizers. Militarization taken to its extreme deprives its civilian industries of materials to be processed into consumer goods. Economic cooperation with other countries is a way for North Korea to obtain raw materials, industrial and consumer goods, foreign exchange, investments, and the latest technologies. North Korea’s economic ties with the outside world are restricted considerably, though, because of international sanctions imposed on it and the lack of free foreign exchange Pyongyang could spare.

    North Korea can only be attractive to the outside world as a source of rare minerals and natural materials, and cheap labor for Northeast Asian countries. According to various estimates, North Korean natural resources (including rich coal fields, and large deposits of iron ore, copper ore, gold, zinc, nickel, and rare-earth metals) are valued at between $2 trillion and $6 trillion. North Korea also claims that its labor is competitive on the world market. Relatively low-paid, skilled North Korean labor can be used in other countries (in China and Russia as the biggest host countries) and at enterprises established in North Korea to process customer materials (provided by the ROK and China) into industrial products or consumer manufactures. Geographical position is yet another of North Korea’s competitive advantages. As freight traffic intensifies in the region and between Asia and Europe, North Korea turns increasingly into a convenient transit route.

    For all their public pretensions to independence and self-sufficiency of their country’s economy, the North Korean leaders acknowledge the need for economic cooperation with other countries in their official statements and practical efforts to improve the investment climate in the country.

    »» Continue reading the full article here »»

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