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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44-45

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 28-Nov. 10, 2013

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    Issue #44-45 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #44-45 Table of Contents

    With the Eastern Partnership summit looming on the horizon, Russia is stepping up its use of carrots and sticks (promises of advantageous natural gas rates and threats of disrupted trade ties) to get Kiev to see the wisdom of walking away from EU association and free trade agreements, and joining Kremlin-sponsored Eurasian integration projects. Mounting pressure from both Russia and the EU is exacerbating a long-standing identity crisis in Ukraine. On the one hand, Russia offers deep-seated historical, economic, civilizational and kinship ties, while on the other, the EU purports to offer a corruption-free environment that fosters transparency, rule of law and democracy – a chance for Ukraine to eradicate the vestiges of corrupt, communist-era political and economic systems. The choice has Ukraine’s leaders in a conundrum as this issue’s first set of featured articles illustrates: Which identity will Ukraine choose?

    According to commentator Sergei Zhiltsov, the EU offers no clear advantages to either Ukraine or Moldova, and the entire EU Eastern Partnership program can essentially be described as a scheme to curtail Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. EU encroachment also creates uncertainties and complications for Transnistria. The authorities of the breakaway republic are concerned about what trouble an EU-influenced Ukraine and Moldova might raise for Tiraspol.

    Another former Soviet republic, Georgia, made the choice to turn from Russia toward the West over a decade ago, but that experiment, conducted under the leadership of Mikhail Saakashvili, has left Georgians bitterly divided over the results. One thing is clear: The Saakashvili era is over. The recently formed Georgian Dream coalition will have a firm grasp on power in Georgia once its victorious presidential candidate Georgy Margvelashvili takes the helm on Nov. 17, but will the coalition be able to live up to its promises?

    Elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, Tajikistan recently brokered an agreement with Russia granting more benefits to Tajik citizens working in Russia in return for guarantees regarding the continued presence of a Russian military base in the republic. The relaxed Tajik migrant policy comes paradoxically amid a crackdown in Russia on Central Asian and Caucasus migrants, in the wake of the killing of an ethnic Russian by an Azeri national.

    On the home front, Russian officials have been busy tweaking national laws and policies: State Duma deputies passed a law that would legalize the punishment of individuals who materially benefit from the terrorist acts committed by family members; Russian President Vladimir Putin is proposing that Russia no longer sign treaties that conflict with national legislation; and the Russian Historical Society has prepared draft guidelines for teaching Russian history and culture in high schools.

    The military is another area that has seen a lot of tweaking by government officials in recent years. How have Russia’s Armed Forces and defense policy changed under the now one-year-old administration of Sergei Shoigu? Not much, according to military analyst Pavel Felgengauer. Much-touted reforms aimed at creating a professional, tech-savvy Army have yet to prove their efficacy. In this regard, Russia could perhaps take a few pointers from Ukraine, where according to Aleksandr Golts, military reforms have shown initial success at bringing about genuine modernization and optimization.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 21-28, 2013

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    Issue #43 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #43 Table of Contents

    Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall” is framed by two contradictory statements: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and “Good fences make good neighbors.” This week’s news items from Russia, clouded with the tragic hues of violence, bring to the fore the problematic theme of boundaries – interethnic, international and interpersonal.

    The violent reprisals in Moscow’s Western Biryulyovo neighborhood (sparked by the murder of an ethnic Russian man, allegedly by an Azeri national) have revitalized a nationwide debate about migration policy. Several bills have quickly been submitted to the Duma imposing tougher requirements on work visa applicants, shorter stays for visitors, etc. Expert Nikolai Petrov, among others, cites the hypocrisy of Russia’s elite, who talk about cracking down on illegal migration, yet benefit from the cheap labor that migrant workers provide. Yulia Latynina challenges the latter assumption, arguing that such labor actually costs more in the long run, because of health care costs and the lack of legal income to build up Russia’s tax base.

    The issue of ethnic and national boundaries also looms large in the story of Naida Asiyalova, the Dagestan-born suicide bomber who exploded a bus in Volgograd. Liberal politician Leonid Gozman brings up the troubling concept of “collective responsibility”: Yes, suicide bombings are unjust acts of revenge against innocent people, but they come in response to Russia’s discriminatory policy against migrants and ethnic/religious minorities. Aren’t we just as bad as the terrorists (says Gozman) when we perpetuate ethnic profiling, mass roundups and deportations?

    On the international level, Russia’s efforts to expand the boundaries of the Customs Union are not completely smooth sailing. President Putin’s staunchest partners, Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, are complaining about unfair trade preferences and barriers. Meanwhile, chronic neighborly battles with Ukraine lead commentator Kirill Rodionov to argue for ethnic unity among Russians – which, of course, presupposes the secession of the North Caucasus republics.

    Meanwhile, Michael Spence implicitly contrasts the global ambitions of Moscow with the insularity of Washington. He says that the continuing standoff in Congress over how to handle America’s rising government debt is rattling other leading countries (like China) that are holding US debt securities. The moral of the story, as Spence sees it, is that global financial stability cannot be held hostage to infighting between Democrats and Republicans. We might say that the sensitivity of international markets to America’s political and economic climate is living proof that the world as a whole “doesn’t love a wall.”

    However, the situation is likely different on the individual level. The boundaries of Russian private life are under threat from the Communications Ministry, which has joined with the FSB to draft a directive requiring Internet service providers to hook up special equipment that would record and store user data. Nezavisimaya gazeta points out the irony here: Just months ago, Russia made a big show of offering former NSA contractor Edward Snowden asylum after he spoke up about US intelligence services snooping on private Internet users – and now it is preparing to impose a similar practice on its own citizens. The fact that so many individuals the world over bristle at this idea goes to prove Frost’s second adage: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 14-20, 2013

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    Issue #42 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #42 Table of Contents

    Nationalism’s butterfly effect; launching ‘perestroika‑2’; and more bad news from the State Duma

    If you toss a stone into a pond, it creates ripples. Judging by the events that erupted this week in the Moscow exurb of Western Biryulyovo, those ripples turned into a tidal wave. Following the murder of Yegor Shcherbakov, an ethnic Russian, by an alleged Caucasus native, an angry mob ransacked a vegetable warehouse. The Moscow police arrested over 200 people and the local chief of police was sacked, writes Rossiiskaya gazeta. Most experts say that the authorities, who have been tossing nationalist “stones” into ponds like Western Biryolyovo, are to blame for the riots. According to columnist Andrei Kolesnikov, the regime’s policy of trying to create a “managed” version of nationalism has backfired. Meanwhile, law enforcement’s collusion with ethnic organized crime groups means that citizens feel defenseless and vulnerable, as they cannot trust the law or the courts, says the Levada Center’s Lev Gudkov. All of this has created a perfect storm. And this is hardly the end of it, warns Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nikolai Petrov: Biryulyovo was merely a demonstration of the raw power of discontent, which can explode at any moment.

    The regime, for its part, paraded the apprehended suspect in front of television cameras and then called the Biryulyovo events a continuation of the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya Square protests. Hardly, writes Kolesnikov. Those who came out on Bolotnaya Square acted peacefully and were demanding fair elections and open government, not setting cars on fire and beating up people who simply didn’t look like them. Bolotnaya Square was the crème de la crème of Russian society; Biryulyovo is its antithesis.

    In another example of PR spin gone awry, the Kirov Province Court this week modified its verdict against opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, giving him a suspended sentence instead of prison time. While some experts saw this reversal as a ‘perestroika‑2,’ others, including opposition leaders, said the tactic was intended to keep Navalny from running in future elections. Is the Kremlin trying to appease the West while at the same time getting rid of a major political headache?

    Some experts say that Navalny may be released under a planned federal amnesty. The amnesty – perhaps the largest in post-Soviet history – would affect about a quarter of Russia’s prisoners and detainees, writes Vedomosti. And while some critics fear a crime wave, those fears are unfounded: The law would affect only those doing time for economic and other nonviolent crimes.

    While the potential amnesty could be viewed as a proverbial carrot, there is also a legislative stick: This week, the Duma adopted on first reading a law that would verify all assets of relatives of terrorists. Any property deemed as having been acquired as a result of terrorist activity would be confiscated, the law reads. In addition, anyone the terrorist holds near and dear would basically be subject to investigation. A return to Medieval customs, wonders author Andrei Babitsky? Considering the Russian judicial system’s abuses and evidentiary standards, anyone could become a suspect – no probable cause required. A frightening thought!

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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