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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #50

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 9-15, 2013

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    Issue #50 Letter From the Editors
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    Putin’s Message to the Federal Assembly – the Ruble Stops Here

    Mark Twain once said: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” President Putin seems to have entered into indirect polemics with the American writer (another indication of increasing US-Russian antagonism?) and decided that loyalty to the government trumps all. In his Message to the Federal Assembly, the president called for the “deoffshorization” of Russian assets. Lashing out at the disproportionately large number of Russian companies operating through foreign tax havens, Putin announced several measures to bring the money back home. First, any company operating in Russia would still be obliged to pay taxes in Russia, even if the company is incorporated somewhere else. Secondly, companies incorporated abroad will not be eligible for government loans. They would also be barred from government tenders and contracts.

    In another indicative move, the president agreed with the All-Russia People’s Front initiative to limit local self-government in the regions to the level of districts. Meaning that the rest – including mayors – would still fall under federal jurisdiction. Columnist Andrei Kolesnikov says that move is meant to eventually phase out popularly elected mayors and replace them with “city managers,” consolidating the regime’s grip on municipalities.

    Finally, Putin touched on the upcoming merger of Russia’s two top courts – the Supreme Court and the Higher Court of Arbitration – saying that the move would allow for a “unified approach” to judicial practice. A corresponding bill on the measure has been approved on first reading by the State Duma, but in a surprise move, the Russian judiciary spoke out against the merger. The opinions that the two higher courts submitted to the State Duma are overwhelmingly negative, to the point of calling many of the provisions unconstitutional. The judiciary also points out such glaring omissions as the lack of a clearly outlined procedure for handling a presidential impeachment. Still, according to Kolesnikov, the court merger is a done deal at this point.

    In another move to ensure greater loyalty, the government this week carried out a major reshuffle in the state media. RIA Novosti and the Golos Rossii [Voice of Russia] state radio company have been eliminated. They will be replaced by a single news service, called Rossia sevodnya (not to be confused with the Kremlin-owned English-language Russia Today television channel). Experts say the appointment of regime loyalist Dmitry Kiselyov to head the new media giant will bring a more conservative viewpoint to official Russian media. It also shows that loyalty and devotion to the regime pay off. Just like the All-Russia People’s Front initiative, this move shows that Putin is increasingly relying on fervent loyalists – not just functionaries – to uphold his position.

    A possible glitch in the Kremlin’s “loyalty rewards program” may be Ukraine – protests continued across Russia’s CIS neighbor, decrying President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU. The situation in Kiev may have reached a stalemate, as protest sentiment has reached a level that can no longer be put down by force, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. However, Yanukovich seems to be unaware of the situation on the ground and did not think that giving in to pressure from Russia would spark such a strong public reaction. In any case, it’s time for Ukraine to stop “dodging raindrops” and choose either Russia or the EU, writes Sergei Aleksashenko, former head of Russia’s Central Bank. If Ukraine is any indication, Putin’s new loyalty strategy may prove to be a huge fiasco.

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor


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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #48-49

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 25-Dec. 8, 2013

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    Chicken Kiev and Another Chorus of ‘Back in the USSR’

    In an 11th-hour decision, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich ultimately decided (drumroll, please!) . . . not to sign a free trade and association agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. The sudden decision sparked mass protests in Ukraine that were met in central Kiev by a crackdown from government security forces.

    The Ukrainian president’s move is, well, both logical and illogical. The Russian stick apparently proved more incentivizing than the EU carrot, and Kiev chickened out. Because Russia has many mechanisms at its disposal to arbitrarily make life in Ukraine difficult (gas prices, visa and trade regimes, public health sanctions, etc.), Yanukovich’s choice not to anger Moscow was on the one hand logical. But on the other hand, it was arguably illogical for him to pass up a chance to give Ukrainians an opportunity for a better life. So, does the decision mean Ukraine is still balancing between Russia and the EU, or is it now solidly in the Russia camp?

    Russian leaders love the limelight – or the hot seat, depending on how you look at it. At any rate, they seem to have a penchant for pontificating at large discussion forums. This issue’s third feature covers President Putin’s appearance at a first-of-its-kind Russian Literary Assembly (a new, Soviet-style Writers’ Union?), his participation in a forum of the All-Russia People’s Front (a throwback to Soviet-era “civic” organizations?) and comments from a live TV interview with Dmitry Medvedev, during which the PM spoke mainly in (Soviet-type?) slogans. Are Russia’s leaders trying to invoke the form – if not the spirit – of Soviet-era ideology-infused institutions (in the broadest sense of that term)?

    Russia’s economy is also inspiring comparisons to the Soviet Union these days. According to economist Sergei Guriyev, dismal economic forecasts cannot be blamed on outside factors, but on a lack of internal structural reforms. The result is looming stagnation, much like the economic climate in the Brezhnev years.

    The narrative of enemies (both internal and external) so adroitly exploited in Soviet days has been reintroduced in the Putin era, and is manifest in what is commonly referred to now as the “besieged fortress mentality.” Vedomosti writes that Russian citizens’ growing mistrust of other citizens is prompting them to increase their trust in a strong, conservative central government. In other words, Putin has a freer hand to pursue hard-line, statist policies.

    In perhaps the most blatant return to the Soviet era in the last two weeks, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced (in not so many words) that it wants to recast the military education system more or less in the image of its Soviet precursor. That’s a bad idea, writes analyst Aleksandr Golts, who argues that the move would restore Soviet-era inefficiencies and a glut of military officers. These problems have plagued Russia’s post-Soviet military and were what prompted overarching military modernization reforms a few years back. Those modernization measures appear to be slated for drastic revision under the direct oversight of Putin, who is also now assuming personal control over the management of the military-industrial complex.

    In international news, Iran has agreed to limited restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for eased Western sanctions. Although Moscow lauds the agreement, commentators Pavel Felgengauer and Aleksandr Shumilin note that the deal could have unintended, potentially negative consequences for Russia. Also, it seems that even Russia’s Iranian policy can’t escape Soviet influence: Felgengauer says Russia is letting Middle Eastern dictators set its agenda for the region – something the USSR did as well, he reminds us.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #47

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 18-24, 2013

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    ‘With a Lever I Will Move the Whole World’

    According to this legendary boast of Archimedes, all one needs is a firm place to stand. In this week’s first feature, Aleksei Malashenko intimates that Russia’s diplomatic leverage in Damascus is promising, but it will be a challenge to gain a firm footing in this multipolar world. He predicts that Russia’s success in the Middle East will depend on the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

    Russia seems to be exerting quite a bit of leverage in Ukraine as well. How else can one explain Kiev’s sudden suspension of its preparations for a much-anticipated association agreement with the European Union? Indeed, Moscow has been holding out some sweet economic temptations. However, Yevgeny Kiselyov argues that in their heart of hearts, no one in Ukraine – neither President Yanukovich, the opposition, or even jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Timoshenko – really wants EU membership. Sergei Frolov claims, on the other hand, that Yanukovich is turning away from Europe because he needs Putin’s support to maintain his authoritarian power – and that need goes both ways.

    Our third feature continues a series of commentaries about how the military and law-enforcement establishment – particularly the Russian Investigative Committee – is exerting leverage on legislative decisions, which in turn affect economic ones: For example, as a Vedomosti editorial points out, the IC has drafted a bill to regain the right to indict businesses on tax charges – without relying on evidence from the tax authorities! In the same vein, Nezavisimaya gazeta cites a major constitutional change that will result in merging the Supreme Court and the Higher Court of Arbitration, thereby making the latter powerless in moderating economic disputes.

    Another triumph of the “security elite” was heralded by the appointment of former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov as the CEO of a division of state-run Russian Technologies. Pavel Felgengauer remarks that this resurrection is a signal to the Kremlin inner circle that Putin “won’t give up his own,” as long as they stay loyal and share any cash that may come their way (legally or otherwise). Speaking of sharing cash – Yulia Latynina tells of a new Duma bill that would obligate the government to seize Russians’ dollar accounts and forcibly exchange them for rubles (Latynina surmises that those Russians who happen to have Kremlin connections would get a much better exchange rate).

    The Putin elite’s leverage on private businesspeople extends beyond Russia’s borders, too, as shown by the IC’s success this week in extraditing Uralkaly CEO Vladislav Baumgertner on charges of abuse of power.

    One way that Russian legislation might exert some positive leverage on business is by tightening illegal immigration and requiring employers to pay migrant workers a fair wage – two recent regulations that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov touted in an interview this week. However, taking a cue from Kirill Rogov’s commentary piece, what if these laws are just another example of “domestic repression” being used to prop up a fundamentally corrupt regime? Does Russia have a firm place to stand to use its levers?

    Lost and Found in Translation. Sergei Markov, director of the Plekhanov Economic University, made the following remark on the potential association agreement between Ukraine and the EU (as rendered in our draft translation): “One could say that this agreement had an element of conspiracy.” Accurate enough, but we felt that the English quotation failed to convey the analyst’s wit –the Russian words he used for “agreement” and “conspiracy” were, respectively, dogovor and zagovor. It seemed a hopeless quest to discover two equivalents in English that could be so similar, but in the end we opted for poeticism over exactitude: we arrived at “political pact” and “political plot.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 11-17, 2013

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    Issue #46 Letter From the Editors
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    This Week’s Gamblers (Not So) Anonymous: Ukraine, the EU and Edward Snowden

    I hope you brought your poker face, dear readers, because you are going to need it! Events progressed like a high-stakes game of Texas Hold’em across much of the CIS and the EU this week. To start, many commentators were left wondering whether Ukraine’s hedging on signing an association agreement with the EU was a bluff or not. Feeling like the prettiest girl at the ball, what with both Brussels and Moscow after its affections, Kiev has started playing hard to get with the Europeans. First, it is demanding that the EU drop its condition that former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko be released from prison. Secondly, it wants a bigger bailout to help Band-Aid its budget. Not entirely unreasonable, writes the New York Times, which called the current bailout offer on the table (about 1 billion euros) “a drop in the bucket.” Even Ukraine’s former president Leonid Kuchma warned that the devil is in the details, and the association agreement may have a devastating effect on Ukraine.

    Of course, the EU is sporting a poker face of its own, writes Sergei Markov of the Plekhanov Economic University – the real reason it wants Ukraine to sign the agreement is to get at Russia, mainly by severing its historic ties with Ukraine. Here, the author quotes former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: “Russia with Ukraine is always an empire, but Russia without Ukraine is always a weak country.”

    Another well-known gambler – Edward Snowden – decided to remind the world of his existence this week by releasing “A Manifesto for the Truth.” It’s been a busy week for Snowden, who not only managed to find a job in Russia, but also assured the German government of his full cooperation in investigating the US wiretapping of Chancellor Merkel’s phone. Things seemed to be going swimmingly for Snowden – Bundestag Deputy Hans-Christian Ströbele flew to Russia to meet with the dissident, while Germany’s most influential publications, Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, ran reports obviously sympathetic to Snowden. According to Izvestia, Snowden has been searching not only for jobs, but also a new place of residence (his asylum in Russia was granted only for a year), and Germany would certainly be a nice option. The German government, however, caught on to this scheme, but instead of folding, it went all in – German officials soon did not want anything to do with the NSA leaker, using threats to Snowden’s security as an excuse.

    Finally, the long-simmering issue of Nagorno-Karabakh reared its head again this week, when Armenian deputies voted against recognizing the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s independence. Before the votes were even in, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was off touring the contested region – showing that the result was predetermined, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. So the whole exercise may have been a maneuver by the Armenian side to show its rival Azerbaijan (and its powerful supporter, Turkey) that Yerevan is ready to play ball. A tell or a smart political gambit? You be the judge.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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