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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #9

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 24-March 2, 2014

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    Issue #9 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #9 Table of Contents

    For the last few weeks, the attention of the international community has been riveted on the latest developments in Ukraine, where a new leadership is emerging in the wake of Viktor Yanukovich’s unceremonious departure following weeks of antigovernment protests. Ukraine’s parliament has assumed control, voted to restore the 2004 Constitution and formed an interim government that will serve until early elections in May. That decision did not sit well in areas of Ukraine with a large Russian population that is leery of the new Western-leaning authorities. They are asking Russia to step in and do something. Does the appearance of unidentified, well-armed paramilitary forces in Crimea and snap military drills on Ukraine’s border indicate Russia is heeding those calls – in the form of boots on the ground?

    The response from Russia’s independent expert community to the potential for Russian armed action in Ukraine has been largely negative, as the commentaries in the second set of featured articles show. Russia must stop treating the territory of other former Soviet republics as its own backyard and instead seek the good of the people in these countries together with Western partners, write Semyon Novoprudsky, Valery Zubov, Vladimir Fedorin and Nadezhda Arbatova. But the West must not seek purely its own interests using institutions such as the IMF, warns Vadim Levental.

    What is happening in Ukraine cannot but worry Russia, which certainly does not need volatility on its borders or in other post-Soviet states. Nezavisimaya gazeta writes in an editorial that Moscow must start fostering friendship with the people of those countries – not just with whoever is in power – if it wants to maintain long-term, viable relations with its partners in the region.

    The unrest in Ukraine likely also serves as a painful reminder to the Kremlin of Russia’s own mass demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square and elsewhere that broke out during the 2011-2012 parliamentary and presidential election cycle. A Moscow court this week sentenced the remaining “Bolotnaya case” defendants. A total of 27 participants in a May 6, 2012, “March of Millions” protest rally ahead of Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration were arrested for allegedly attacking police. Some were released as part of Putin’s mass amnesty, one committed suicide and of the remaining eight, seven were sentenced to prison. The verdict provoked a protest rally, during which police arrested over 400 people. Will the cycle continue, or will Moscow take some lessons from Kiev’s Independence Square?

    The Olympic Flame was snuffed out this week in Sochi, but not before kindling a bit more national pride among Russians during the two-week long celebration of winter sports and all things Russian. In a post-Olympic interview, Putin raved about the success of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games and panned Russia-bashing Western critics, who he says are pursuing a narrow, propagandistic agenda.

    Russian lawmaker Vasily Likhachov echoed that sentiment in a Moscow Times piece in which he lambasts “Russophobic” European politicians and institutions for “entirely subjective” assessments of Russia’s policies, as well as for meddling in Ukraine. I guess if one side toes a line, the other must, too, right?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 24-March 2, 2014

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    Issue #8 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #8 Table of Contents

    The ‘Language of the Cobblestone’: Echoes of the Past and Prospects for New Directions

    Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam wrote in 1923: “The language of the cobblestone is clearer to me than the dove’s.” These words seem jarringly appropriate to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine: According to reports, the cobblestone has been a weapon wielded not only by frustrated protesters, but also by the so-called titushki – the young, athletic rabble-rousers hired by the authorities. Tragically, the language of firearms has spoken even louder: This week saw the first mass casualties of the last three months, as gunshots rang out from rooftops surrounding Independence Square and police opened fire with automatic weapons.

    By the way, readers should not be misled by the Mandelshtam quotation above. Revolutionary as the poet was in his own way, what he actually meant by “the language of the cobblestone” is the echoes of the past as preserved in physical artifacts. Now that the Olympic Games are over, economist Sergei Markov reflects on the pageantry of the opening ceremony, replete with physical reminders of Russia’s past (remember the onion domes, troikas, rocket ships?). Was Putin showing the glory of Russia for his own compatriots, as Markov contends, or was he striving to impress the rest of the world, as argued in a Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial? Experts interviewed by the Moscow Times speculate about whether the post-Olympic Russian world will be more lenient or more repressive.

    Speculations also abound in connection with this week’s news from the CIS. Two Americans – one a Senate staffer, the other a foreign policy researcher – visited Baku, where a Radio Liberty correspondent told them that Azerbaijan is on the brink of revolution, but also gave them a list showing that almost all oppositionists have ties to the ruling regime. Meanwhile, Georgia is concerned by a report that British diplomat Ryan Grist – who caused an international stir in 2008 by faulting Tbilisi for using disproportionate force during the five-day war with Russia – is about to be reassigned to Georgia as head of the EU Monitoring Mission. Speaking of reassignments, Grigory Mikhailov writes from Bishkek about a sophisticated network that recruits Kyrgyz youth to train in Middle East militant camps to fight as guerrillas elsewhere, including Syria.

    The continuing flurry of forces and interests within and around Syria prompts Fyodor Lukyanov to conclude that the Russian-led initiative to reach a settlement there has lost its momentum: It is time for diplomats on all sides to do some heavy lifting. In like manner, defense expert Vladimir Kozin faults the US for sticking to its guns on missile defense, thereby sapping the optimism that accompanied the signing of the 2010 START treaty. Kozin says it’s time for a “super New START deal” that would reshape the pattern of US missile defense. Perhaps in some cases, listening carefully to the echoes of the past can lead us in new directions.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #7

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 10-16, 2014

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    Issue #7 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #7 Table of Contents

    How to Lose Friends and Alienate Allies; and Would a Party by Any Other Name Sound as Sweet?

    No peace and harmony in the news this week as power struggles, turf wars and infighting erupt across the pages of the Digest. On the domestic front, Russia’s Prosecutor General Yury Chaika submitted a proposal to the State Duma to limit the powers of the Russian Investigative Committee – and give his agency the right to investigate the investigators. The official reason given is the IC’s penchant for illegally prosecuting Russian citizens – roughly 14,000 have faced unjust persecution over the last three years, Chaika laments. But some experts believe the real motive is Chaika’s ongoing rivalry with IC head Aleksandr Bastrykin. The two have been at loggerheads ever since the IC acquired independence from the prosecution system. And it’s not like the prosecution system (or the courts, for that matter) are any less guilty of unjust prosecution, says expert Aleksei Mukhin.

    There was no love lost between the leaders of the Republican Party of Russia/People’s Freedom Party. The coalition essentially ceased to exist this week after one of its leaders, Vladimir Ryzhkov, left the party. Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov, his onetime allies, accused Ryzhkov of cozying up to the authorities, writes Novaya gazeta. Ryzhkov, in turn, accused Nemtsov and Kasyanov of violating the party’s bylaws and leaving him out of the decision-making process.

    Does the demise of RPR/PFP give more elbow room to Navalny’s newly renamed Party of Progress? Politicians and commentators are wondering if the party’s new name (formerly the People’s Alliance party) will spook the more conservative part of the electorate, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. While the word “progress” speaks to Russia’s more liberal establishment, it may be a turn-off to those in favor of guaranteed “stability” and other more populist measures.

    Disagreements also continue to plague the Ukrainian opposition. As the Supreme Rada searches for a possible resolution to the crisis, the radical opposition has threatened that it does not intend to sit around and wait. Instead, it plans to seize strategic infrastructure such as gas pipelines to make the EU and Russia more agreeable at the negotiating table, Nezavisimaya gazeta writes. But instead of a unified front, the EU and Russia only seem to be drifting farther apart on Ukraine – or at least according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who penned an angry missive in Kommersant this week, accusing the EU of holding an all-or-nothing approach that only fuels the crisis. The Russian official states that the EU needs to figure out if it wants a true partnership with Russia, or continued petty antagonism.

    And while such remarks from official Moscow may not have been all that pleasant for Brussels to hear, at least they weren’t an expletive-laden dismissal of EU foreign policy from a top ally – the US. In a wiretapped conversation with the US ambassador in Kiev, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland didn’t pull any punches – “Fuck the EU,” the US diplomat exclaimed. The remark sparked outrage among European officials and further strained the already-tense US-EU relations. Looks like the work of WikiLeaks and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is alive and well, says Kommersant’s Sergei Strokan. Hard to argue with that.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #6

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 3-9, 2014

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    Issue #6 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #6 Table of Contents

    Ukraine has been in the throes of political turmoil ever since its president, Viktor Yanukovich, switched the country’s integration orientation from the West to Eurasia last November. As demonstrations in opposition to that switch become more raucous and the list of protesters’ demands grows, speculation is rife that Ukraine could fall into political and social chaos, and even split along long-standing East-West fault lines. Is this a real and present danger or just overblown rhetoric? Our first set of featured articles provides a uniquely Russian perspective on the unfolding events.

    Integration issues are also a hot topic in Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova where opinions regarding the East-West vector are also vehement but internally far less divisive than in Ukraine. A referendum in the autonomy revealed that an overwhelming majority of Gagauz supports joining the Russia-sponsored Customs Union over becoming part of the EU. Most residents also favor declaring independence from Moldova if that country were to merge with Romania as part of a so-called “Greater Romania.”

    The topic of integration was also a point of contention this week among several Russian experts who, in a series of position articles, discussed the merits and shortcomings of various Russian integration and development models. While universally agreeing that Siberia and the Far East must be developed, the experts nevertheless differ on the philosophical aspects of development and integration: Should Russia turn away from Europe and toward emerging Asia? Should it focus solely on developing its own Eurasian Union? Or should it instead emphasize domestic development by promoting federalism, private initiative and entrepreneurship?

    In a separate article on the subject of Russia’s development, Semyon Novoprudsky compares life in Russia ahead of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to life in the country ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and finds some rather unsettling similarities – so much so that he feels the Sochi Games could in fact be the “swan song” of the Putin regime, just as the Moscow Olympics were for the Soviet regime. And although the KGB is now the FSB, commentator Andrei Soldatov assures us that its electronic surveillance of the Sochi Games will still be Soviet in scale, if not in spirit. (But don’t worry, phone tapping is for visitors’ and participants’ own safety, Kremlin media assures those travelling to Sochi.)

    This week, the US announced that its Aegis Combat System would be deployed to Europe aboard US Navy ships. It also confirmed its commitment to deploy missile defenses in Poland – a step that Moscow continues to view suspiciously. The US announcement comes as Russia tests a new medium-range missile and amid talk that Moscow might withdraw from the START and INF treaties, a move most Russian experts believe would be foolhardy, since that agreement benefits Moscow more than it does Washington. Commentator Aleksandr Golts says that this threat is merely another attempt by the Kremlin to blame the US for Russia’s problems and part of its incomprehensible policy of equating national security with the capacity to obliterate half of the US in the event that Russia is ever attacked by America.

    In what could be a harbinger of future Russian-US relations, Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia and coauthor of the ultimately ill-fated “reset” policy, announced he is leaving his post, along with his work in the Obama administration. Could his replacement indicate the future tenor of US policy toward Russia?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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