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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 7-13, 2013

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    Issue #41 Letter From the Editors
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    ‘How to Buy Friends and Make People Like You’

    Putin hasn’t written any self-improvement books – at least none have been published as such (what do you think, does his autobiography qualify?) – but if he ever decides to write one and has a hard time coming up with a title, he may want to consider the aforementioned twist on Dale Carnegie’s classic in the genre. Russia’s “militocracy” is getting richer, thanks to Putin’s generous wage increases for the ex-KGB-led security clan. The wages of many top Russian security and law-enforcement officials now exceed those of several Western European leaders, to say nothing of those with similar job titles and descriptions in the West. The wage disparity between what they make and what the average Russian makes is literally off the charts. Is Putin buying loyalty, questions Yevgenia Albats in our first set of featured articles, and if so, why? (She was the one to use “militocracy” to describe the Russian ruling system, which is increasingly undeniably based on military rank. Seriously, the number of ex-military brass among the ruling elite is quite astounding!)

    The move comes as Putin recently initiated the Constitutional amendment process for court system reforms that would essentially restaff Russia’s higher judicial bodies. In other words, the administration would get a chance to vet and appoint a whole new cadre of 170 judges for Russia’s top courts. One gets the feeling that Putin is trying to insulate himself, but from what?

    Oh, I don’t know, the negative effects of a flagging economy, perhaps? Russian Higher School of Economics experts recently outlined some fairly dismal economic development scenarios for Russia (see the second set of featured articles). According to their report, Russia must improve its education and science sector, together with its investment climate, if it hopes to maintain a modicum of economic well-being. The experts draw a direct line between Russia’s economic and political situations: Russia needs viable political solutions to address economic problems.

    In an interview with Andrei Kolesnikov and Aleksei Polukhin, former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin agrees that the Russian government has no coherent economic policies. Incidentally, although Kudrin acknowledges that democracy promotes government transparency, he comments that democracy is not necessarily a prerequisite for government efficiency or economic growth – just take China, for example. So, maybe Putin is taking that idea to heart (after all, Putin and Kudrin do chat once and a while, according to the latter). Could he be buckling down on “sovereign democracy” – that term hasn’t been used in a while – to single-handedly save the Russian economy?

    Oh, and by the way, the government is also freezing citizens’ nonstate pension plans for 2014 – at least, that’s the word on Red Square. The plan is to take citizens’ money and put it in a safe place (read: government coffers) to protect it from unsavory private pension fund managers. So, maybe Putin is buying friends, but he still might not get everyone to like him!


    Lost and Found in Translation. Russian newspaper columnists often pull gems out of Russia’s great literary treasure chest to illustrate a salient point. This week, Semyon Novoprudsky used the phrase pikeinye zhilety (literally, “pique vests”) – a synecdochical expression that in Russia has come to mean political pundits who really don’t know what they are talking about. The phrase comes from Ilya Ilf’s and Yevgeny Petrov’s 1931 novel “The Golden Calf” [Zolotoi telyonok].  The “pique vests” in this novel are “venerable old men” who – in their pique vests and straw boater hats – gather to discuss the latest news in international politics in a rather self-important manner, as if they really had expert knowledge about such things. The translation we came up with: “armchair political observers.”

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy 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 #39

    Letter From the Editors: September 23-29, 2013

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    Issue #39 Letter From the Editors
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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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