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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #40

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 29-Oct. 5, 2014



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    Issue #40 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #40 Table of Contents

    Passion, Aggression and Passive Aggression: Is Russia Waiting for the Enemy to Float By?


    When is a ceasefire not a ceasefire? When no one ceases firing. Two Minsk agreements later, we can say (without Minsking words) that even though top international leaders say they are ready for peace, many internal conflicts remain within Ukraine. In a bold move to resolve them (just in time for the parliamentary campaign season, as Sergei Stankevich reminds us), President Poroshenko has come forward with a bold set of reform initiatives targeting corruption, clan entitlement, economic woes and much more. The planned culmination is the full accession of Ukraine to the EU by 2020. Can Poroshenko push his Strategy 2020 past potential objections from the other branches of government – not to mention the oligarchs and warmongers?


    One thing is for sure about Ukraine’s political climate, as reflected iconically in Kharkov, where a mob knocked down Ukraine’s biggest Lenin monument: The dream of “Novorossia” (the re-expansion of Russia’s dominion all the way to the Black Sea) is not to be, as commentator Igor Semivolos says. Granted, that public demonstration of resistance to a Russian takeover did not stop the prime ministers of Ukraine, Romania and Moldova from gathering in Kiev for a powwow on regional security.


    Meanwhile, all is quiet on the Russian home front. The sixth annual investment forum sponsored by VTB Capital confirmed that there is nothing new on the horizon for the zero-growth economy, in which incomes are stagnant but inflation is rising. The highlights of the forum came early on, when Sberbank chief German Gref let loose impassioned metaphors, like the one about the Central Bank “treating cancer with aspirin.”


    The afternoon presentation by the usually sharp-witted Putin was bland by comparison, aside from his remark calling sanctions against Russia “utter foolishness.” His answer to internal stagnation and external restrictions? More government intervention. “An industrial breakthrough is required in the next few years, and strong state-owned companies will need to be created in the manufacturing sectors.” The ministers themselves mainly gave off signals of passive resignation. For example, economic development chief Aleksei Ulyukayev cited the proverb: “If you sit by a river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.” Ulyukayev did, however, object strongly to a new law that will use state budget funds to compensate Russians (read: super-rich Russians) for any losses they sustain from Western sanctions.


    Speaking of new laws, the most controversial on the radar this week was one that the State Duma adopted within just 10 days of submission: It restricts the ownership structure of practically all media outlets – radio, television and print – stipulating a maximum share of 20% that may be controlled by foreigners.


    Commentators view such legislation as symptomatic of Russia’s growing isolationism. Vladimir Pastukhov, for one, writes about the fallacious “siege mentality” that prompts many Russians to view themselves as surrounded by foreign enemies. Combating that mentality, he says, is like treating Ebola in Africa: “Your biggest enemy is ignorance, not the virus itself.” At the same time, Pastukhov considers it justified for Putin (and his compatriots) to be angry about Western countries’ attempts to draw Ukraine into their circle. Unlike Vasily Gatov, who portrays Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as the acts of a “local bully,” Pastukhov takes a more nuanced view: “Russia did not start this war because of its overwhelming strength – quite to the contrary. It was a desperate act of a weak nation intimidated by a strong opponent.” Can the West and Russia succeed in establishing a more genuine and lasting “ceasefire” than we have seen in Ukraine so far?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #39

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 22-28, 2014



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    Issue #39 Letter From the Editors
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    Mixed Signals on Ukraine; Khodorkovsky vs. Sanctions; and Putin’s Popular Dilemma


    It seems that everyone is getting their signals crossed this week. Take the issue of the latest round of talks on Ukraine, for instance. In Minsk, the sides (representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and yes, even the separatists) hammered out a nine-point ceasefire agreement that establishes, among other things, a security zone. Meanwhile, tempers flared at the UN when the Ukrainian representative accused Russia of failing to implement any of the previous provisions reached during an earlier meeting in Minsk. This of course cast doubts on the optimistic statements coming from Minsk.


    The mixed signals did not end there: Ukraine is proceeding with plans to build a wall along the border with Russia, Kiev announced. Seems like a strange move, given that the parties supposedly reached a ceasefire agreement, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta.


    On top of that, a power struggle may be brewing between Poroshenko and Ukrainian PM Arseny Yatsenyuk. After the Ukrainian president bowed out of a UN appearance at the last second and sent Yatsenyuk in his place, the latter did not hold back. Speaking before the assembly, Yatsenyuk urged Western nations not to lift Russian sanctions until the Crimea is returned to Ukraine and Russian troops leave Ukrainian soil. Such statements are hardly in line with the “Poroshenko Peace Plan.”


    Yet according to expert Sergei Taran, while the president and prime minister happen to be political competitors domestically, they are pursuing the same goals when it comes to foreign policy.


    In the second feature this week, Russia’s most famous former political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, made waves both at home and abroad when he announced the relaunch of Open Russia – an organization to support civil society in his homeland. First opened in 2002, it was shut down following his trial and arrest. Now, offices are opening across Europe. Khodorkovsky also stated that he may return to politics in Russia, and perhaps even run for president. Speaking of the Russian president, the former oligarch says that a lot of Putin’s moves are forced by his inner circle, which exploits the president’s emotional nature for its own gains.


    However, Nezavisimaya gazeta called Khodorkovsky’s statements vague and conflicting: “The former head of Yukos doesn’t seem to have a clear idea yet of whether Russia needs to be rescued from a crisis.” The article also points out a number of legal issues that would bar him from running for office for at least a quarter of a century. Interestingly, Khodorkovsky’s strongest criticism was not of his political foe Putin, but of Western sanctions: “Americans, with their pragmatism, think that if something causes us financial loss, then we will give in. But I can sit at a table that has no bread, yet I will not sit at a table that’s been spat on.”


    Meanwhile, in the Russian news, Slon.ru takes a closer look at Putin’s regime. Tatyana Stanovaya shares Khodorkovsky’s view that Putin is a victim of his own entourage. What’s more, he is now caught between the people (or the “Putin majority”) and his inner circle. For one, Putin does not consider his loyal public a viable political force. Instead, the people need a strong guiding hand. But what’s more, the Russian president is afraid of his “silent majority,” which clearly hates the crooked Russian power elite. Yet the elite is also unreliable. So Putin is caught between a rock and a hard place. As a result, Russia is not moving anywhere. The question is, how long can this stalemate last? After all, writes Stanovaya, “It is only possible to lead a double life when there are sufficient resources. When it is no longer possible to keep everybody happy, changes will follow.”


    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

     

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #37-38

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 8-21, 2014



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    Letter From the Editors: September 8-21, 2014


    The Sept. 16 arrest of oil oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov on money-laundering charges has prompted some Russian journalists to wonder if another Mikhail Khodorkovsky saga is in the offing. Putin’s press secretary adamantly denied that the charges against the Bashneft CEO are politically motivated. Journalists Dmitry Gololobov, Vladimir Pastukhov, Yulia Latynina and Valentin Preobrazhensky, however, don’t buy that. They believe that the charges against the Kremlin loyalist are, if not a personal vendetta, then at the very least part of the Russian modern feudal system’s response to lean economic times: The budget is short a few rubles, so the Kremlin is going after the rich and powerful to replenish the state coffers. But there is a bit of a paradigm shift from the Yukos days, Pastukhov notes: “This is not a war against enemies of the regime or corporate raiding, but rather an in-house squabble” over a shrinking pie of state resources. In other word, the Kremlin is going after one of its own. The Kremlin has essentially violated its own contract of “privilege for loyalty” and is now demanding just loyalty (according to Preobrazhensky, disloyalty is now a crime) – after all, we are “at war with the West.”


    And thank goodness, writes Georgy Bovt. Now, both sides can drop the façade of amiability and return to the comfortable rhetoric and logic of the cold war. For both Russia and the West, events in Ukraine justify (and perpetuate) long-held reservations and misgivings about the other side. In fact, the Ukraine crisis is not just a civil war, but, as an Ekspert editorial puts it, a microcosm of the battle for a new global model. (According to Aleksei Panin, EU solidarity and EU-US relations are already suffering over Russian sanctions.)


    That gloomy characterization aside, nominal progress has been made toward resolving the crisis in Ukraine – or at least minimizing the bloodshed. Kiev reached a ceasefire agreement with rebel leaders on Sept. 5. The deal, reached in Minsk, grants the rebel territories “special status” and essentially hands control of local government functions over to insurgents. Many experts doubt the durability of the ceasefire agreement, since fundamental political issues remain unresolved, and both sides define basic concepts differently. And while some in the rebel camp optimistically equate “special status” with de facto autonomy, former rebel leaders Pavel Gubarev and Igor Strelkov definitely are not among them; they consider the Minsk agreements an embarrassment and a defeat.


    Experts are already making historical assessments and future predictions regarding the conflict. Maksim Vikhrov believes the Donetsk Basin uprising was a tragedy waiting to happen ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his opinion, deeply ingrained socioeconomic, linguistic and ethnic differences keep Ukraine disjointed, but for better or worse, Kiev continues to cling desperately to this “suitcase without a handle.” On the other hand, the mounting costs associated with that suitcase have some people wondering whether it is time to toss it. Vladislav Inozemtsev, for his part, says Kiev should recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as occupied territories (letting Moscow bear the burden of rebuilding the rebel regions), and focus on joining NATO and the EU. The Donetsk Basin could later rejoin Ukraine proper at some later date, once the Putin regime collapses under the weight of its imperialist ambitions. Until then, though, Kiev has its work cut out for it.


    According to Latynina, Putin has achieved his strategic objective of destabilizing Ukraine by creating a criminal enclave in the rebel-held regions that could be tapped at any moment to create embarrassing unrest in a country seeking to integrate into the West. He scored another victory when Ukraine agreed to delay the implementation of its association agreement with the EU until late 2015. Also, parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, featuring a broad political field with old rivalries and fresh animosities. Can Kiev cope with the challenges lying ahead? Time will tell.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor


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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #35-36

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 25-Sept. 7, 2014



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    Issue #35-36 Letter From the Editors
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    ‘All the World’s a Stage, and All the Men and Women Merely Players’


    Shakespeare’s famous words could be applied to much of the news from Russia and beyond that has surfaced these past two weeks. The “stage” of Minsk presented a long-awaited chance for Putin and recently elected Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko to negotiate face-to-face for the first time. From the line-up of this summit, which included top EU officials, this seemed like the tripartite magic formula that would at last untie the knot of the raging Ukrainian civil war. As it turned out, multilateral talks focused mainly on trade issues – chiefly, how Ukraine’s impending association agreement with the EU would affect its own economy, as well as its relations with its neighbors in the Customs Union. NG’s Svetlana Gamova acknowledges that at least talks are now under way, however limited their scope; but Minsk journalist Irina Khalip is a good deal more critical: She calls the summit Putin’s one-man show – the other heads of state and EU officials only walked on as extras.


    Meanwhile, in the military theater, a disturbingly contradictory show is being staged: Moscow officials vehemently deny that any Russian troops are being sent to fight in Ukraine, and yet evidence to the contrary continues to mount. Particularly persuasive evidence – a taped conversation, apparently between Russian airborne soldiers in Ukraine – was revealed by Pskov legislator Lev Shlosberg. Shortly afterward, Shlosberg was beaten by identified attackers on the streets of his hometown. Pavel Felgengauer explains the inner workings of what he calls a covert war: Since Russian soldiers are not “officially” fighting in Ukraine, any of them sent there are unlikely to receive compensation for disability or benefits later, especially if the political situation changes. “Meanwhile, those killed in this secret and underhanded war are already being buried in secret, like terrorists.”


    Tatyana Stanovaya manages to see a silver lining in the covert status of this conflict: The fact that the main actors (at least one of them) are still waiting in the wings means that geopolitical repercussions (for now) are being kept in check. “The difference between an open invasion and covert military involvement is huge in terms of the scale of the Western sanctions they would entail. Even though both the EU and the US admit that Russia is fighting on the separatists’ side, they are in no hurry to declare this military aggression as defined by international law.” Fyodor Lukyanov, on the other hand, feels that open confrontation is a necessary stage of sitting down at the negotiating table and settling differences. Otherwise, both sides will endlessly try to pressure each other into submission: “Sanctions are like a funnel cloud that sucks you in – escalation is like a perpetual motion machine. The logic of retribution gradually displaces all rational calculations, both political and economic.”


    Retribution is now being played out in a different arena, as well. Dmitry Minin describes the execution of American photojournalist James Foley by the Islamic organization ISIS as “an impressively staged and remarkably acted drama symbolizing a greater meaning. The knife over his head looked like a boomerang thrown some time ago by the West with an aim to pursue its purely selfish and shortsighted interests.” In Minin’s view, the Americans are getting payback for supporting ISIS in the first place as a counterforce to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Now, ironically, the US may have to turn to Assad’s Syrian Free Army, which Minin believes is the only force capable of effectively combating ISIS.


    Ukraine and Syria are two of three conflict arenas that US President Barack Obama has let himself get drawn into, according to Vladimir Skosyrev – the third being China. We can only hope that Obama will be able to resist the temptation to be (in Shakespeare’s words) “quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.”


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor


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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #34

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 18-24, 2014



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    Issue #34 Letter From the Editors
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    This Week’s Winners and Losers: Poroshenko, Russia, Putin and Belarussian Pineapples


    In any war, there are winners and losers. But that distinction is getting increasingly difficult to make in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. This week, the parties to the conflict sat down at the negotiating table yet again (never mind the failed negotiations earlier in the summer). While some critics bemoaned these attempts as nothing but beating a dead horse (Russia won’t back down on the Crimea, while Kiev will never accept its independence, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta), others are more optimistic. Fyodor Lukyanov, for one, points to the fact that the negotiations are taking place outside of the public sphere. If this enables the sides to put emotions aside and actually resort to some good old-fashioned diplomacy, then maybe not all is lost, he maintains. Expert Igor Semivolos, on the other hand, says that Moscow is simply stalling for time, fully aware that Ukraine’s economy is on the verge of collapse and that sooner or later, Kiev will be forced to make concessions. But even he agrees that the mere fact that talks are taking place (and involve highly placed EU representatives like Catherine Ashton) is already a positive sign.

    Meanwhile, as the human and economic toll of the war grows steadily with each day of the conflict, a solution can’t come quickly enough. By some estimates, 100 soldiers and 50 civilians are killed every day in Donetsk Province alone. These estimates are also most likely understated, since recordkeeping has been rather slipshod in the war-torn region, writes Vedomosti.


    The cost of the conflict is quite great for Russia, too. According to Aleksandr Shmelyov, the so-called “Russian spring,” with its rallying cries of “the Crimea is ours!” and claims of a Russian rebirth, has actually done more harm than good to the “Russian world.” Take, for instance, the fact that many people in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan who used to call themselves Russian are so disgusted with the Ukraine mess that they no longer identify with the Motherland. And instead of bringing Ukraine closer into Russia’s orbit, the “Russian spring” has brought NATO bases in Ukraine even closer to reality.


    Of course, the one true winner here is Putin – by managing to fragment society, and particularly the nationalists and liberals, he has ensured that his hold on power is secure. No wonder Slon.ru dubbed him Fortunato Putin (in a nod to deposed Argentine president Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who launched the disastrous invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982). Of course, unlike his Argentine counterpart, Putin actually came out on top: The Russian opposition is now nonexistent, the people are rallying around the Crimea, and Kiev is about to be backed into a corner thanks to its mounting economic woes.


    There is another winner in the Russia-West standoff. That someone is perennial Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is already looking for ways to cash in on the exchange of sanctions between the EU and Russia. After Moscow barred food imports from the European Union (a move that has already cost Lithuania’s dairy industry 70 million euros), Minsk suddenly found itself in a position of go-between. Belarussian officials are already meeting with their Polish counterparts. On the agenda: sneaking Polish apples into Russia with Belarussian labels on them. What’s more, according to Novaya gazeta, Russia has already seen an influx of thousands of dollars’ worth in “Belarussian” pineapples. Money really does grow on trees in Belarus, apparently.


    So this week’s round, paradoxically, goes in Moscow’s favor. And as long as Minsk keeps those Belarussian mussels coming, it emerges the winner, as well. Stay tuned for a rematch!


    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

     

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