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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #21

    Letter From the Editors: May 19-25, 2014

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    Issue #21 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #21 Table of Contents

    Ukrainian Elections, Russia-China Gas Deal – Don’t Hold Your Breath?

    The past week has been buzzing with anticipation. Geopolitical bets have been placed, and now the participants are awaiting the outcome with bated breath. Ukraine is anxiously anticipating the presidential election, set for May 25. If the current situation is any indication, it could be a wild ride – clashes continued in southeast Ukraine, with the number of dead and wounded possibly creeping into the hundreds. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has labeled the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics terrorist organizations as a second round of talks failed to yield results. Experts point out the central government’s inherently flawed approach of reaching out to local elites, who actually have no control over the armed bandits running amok in the region. Even the imposing figure of billionaire Rinat Akhmetov isn’t holding much weight. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, the oligarch – a supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity – has so far been unable to establish dialogue with the separatists, much to Kiev’s chagrin.

    Ukrainian miners, a crucial electorate, also found themselves hostage to the current crisis after separatists seized the offices of a major mining company. With the police and the local government out of the picture, union reps managed to negotiate some concessions from the separatists, but the building remains under siege. Instances of miners being abducted and tortured by the separatists run rampant, says Mikhail Volynets, chairman of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine. Will the election help remedy the situation? Doubtful, he says, since Donetsk probably won’t even get a chance to vote.

    Another highly anticipated event took place this week, when Russia and China signed a gas deal that President Putin called “historic.” Having been in the works for many years, the deal includes contracts for Gazprom to sell China 38 billion cubic meters of gas a year, writes Rossiiskaya gazeta. It comes at a price tag of $400 billion. So is this Putin’s “answer to Chamberlain,” wonders Vedomosti? After all, in light of Western sanctions, it is more important than ever for Russia to show it can find friends elsewhere. Or is it another worthless megaproject to nowhere, as columnist Yulia Latynina maintains?

    Speaking of megaprojects, experts this week debated whether those can solve Russia’s economic woes – or add to them. With the Russian economy in for stagnation at best, is it time to turn to yet another megaproject like the Sochi Olympics, wonders Nezavisimaya gazeta. After all, private investment cannot be relied on at this point. While megaprojects can give a much-needed economic boost, writes The Moscow Times, they can only work as part of a balanced economy that includes a strong private sector. Certainly not the case in Russia! So are megaprojects just another pie in the sky?

    If so, then Russia isn’t the only one daydreaming: Kyrgyzstan pitched a highly ambitious railway venture to China on the sidelines of a security conference in Shanghai. The project would get China to join a Russia-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran railway project. Together with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan’s transportation capabilities took a hit after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Official Bishkek and Dushanbe say the railway would help them transport goods to the West. Experts, however, see the move as a signal to Moscow, which has been reluctant to get on board the project. The vague idea looks more like an attempt to pit Russia and China against each other, says expert Aleksandr Knyazev. Will this attempt bear fruit?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #19-20

    Letter From the Editors: May 5-18, 2014

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    Issue #19-20 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #19-20 Table of Contents

    The protracted crisis in southeastern Ukraine took a bloody turn as scores of pro-Russian activists were killed and injured in Odessa when the building they were taking shelter in caught on fire during a skirmish with Ukrainian unity supporters. Some experts comment that Ukraine is edging closer to civil war, while others say that a de facto proxy war has erupted with neighboring Russia.

    Ukraine’s restive southeast made a bid to formalize its breakaway status by holding regional referendums on independence despite warnings from Kiev, the international community and even Russian President Vladimir Putin. What will the largely symbolic referendums accomplish?

    Not much, it seems. The standoff between the Donetsk Basin and Kiev shows no sign of abating. Both sides agree on the need for dialogue, but terms are another issue. To Kiev, the operation in the southeast is a legitimate “antiterrorist push” to neutralize a well-armed, professional and unidentified militia fighting on behalf of separatists. To the rebels and their tacit supporters in Moscow, it’s a “punitive military action” perpetrated by an illegitimate junta against a disaffected local population that is seeking greater self-determination. As long as the two sides refuse to come to terms (literally), effective dialogue of any sort remains elusive.

    The situation in southeastern Ukraine is burning more and more bridges between Russia and the West, including its closest European ally, Germany. Against that backdrop, Moscow is eagerly seeking to build them with China – both figuratively and literally. And while China’s recently announced participation in a project to build a transportation corridor between Krasnodar Territory and the Crimea across the Kerch Strait might be a prime example of the latter, Leonid Radzikhovsky writes that in order to achieve the former, Russia’s relations with its long-time UN Security Council pal must move beyond mere political-ideological sympathies to include significant interstate agreements. We’ll see if Putin manages to bridge some gaps during his upcoming visit to China.

    And while Moscow and Kiev certainly aren’t building any bridges in bilateral relations (outstanding gas debts and the terms of future gas deliveries continue to be a bone of bitter contention), Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko signaled that he was ready to shake hands with Putin to get the long-awaited Eurasian Economic Union off the ground

    Russians marked another momentous date amid the traditional May holidays. May 7 officially marked Putin’s 10th year as a Russian president (overall, his 14th year as Russia’s head honcho). And if his sky-high approval ratings are to be believed, that’s cause for celebration for many Russians. Indeed, according to recent polling data, most Russians feel surprisingly content with their lot in life despite less-than-rosy economic circumstances and a laundry list of broken Putin campaign promises. Radzikhovsky attributes Putin’s cult following to his channeling of Russia’s deeply rooted patriarchal archetype of a “father of the nation” who represents a living connection to Russia’s generations-old cultural traditions and imaginations.

    Sure, but the president also owes at least some of his political success to his cozy relationship with Russia’s military and security apparatus. Ex-KGB man Putin recently tipped his hat its way by appointing two members of the career security elite to top North Caucasus federal administrative posts that had previously been entrusted to civilians amid a wave of “excessive liberalism” under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential administration. Putin clearly knows which side his bread is buttered on. Besides, they seem like good guys to have around when threats are lurking at home and the near abroad. After all, Russians must not be allowed to entertain ideas of self-determination (certainly not separatism), and NATO is obviously on a quest to make further inroads into Moldova and Uzbekistan, right?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • New Issue Highlights

    Current Digest of the Russian Press #19-20 (May 5-18, 2014)

    Chinese Companies to Link Crimean Peninsula With Russian Mainland.

    The Russian Transportation Ministry is working on a deal with China Railway Construction to build a passageway between Krasnodar Territory and the Crimea. Find out why Russia also expects to reap political dividends from the project.

    Crimean Tatar Leader Banned From Crimea, Sparking Protests.

    Demonstrators blocked highways across the Crimea after the local authorities banned controversial Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev from entering the peninsula. With the Crimean prosecutor threatening legal action, will the protests further destabilize the region?

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  • New Issue Highlights

    Current Digest of the Russian Press #17-18 (April 21-May 4, 2014)

    US Sanctions Put Russian Space Industry in Jeopardy.

    Heavily reliant on imported components, Russia’s lucrative commercial space launch program is about to screech to a halt because of Western sanctions. Is Putin’s claim that domestic producers can replace foreign imports a bluff?

    Russia’s Security Services Employees Face Foreign Travel Restrictions.

    Planning your vacation just got tougher if you work for Russia’s security and law-enforcement establishment. Agency chiefs announced pending travel restrictions for employees with access to state secrets – which would include anyone in investigative or analytical work. Find out why local travel agents are ecstatic.

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #17-18

    Letter From the Editors: April 21-May 4, 2014

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    Issue #17-18 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #17-18 Table of Contents

    When Worlds Collide: A Kaleidoscope of Views on Ukraine

    Prior to the momentous Crimean referendum in March, Angela Merkel said in a widely quoted conversation with Barack Obama that it seemed Russian President Vladimir Putin was “in another world”: She questioned whether he was in touch with reality. Now that Russia has annexed the Crimea, the whole world is living in a different reality. At this point, Putin’s response to Merkel might be (as the popular joke goes): “I know I live in my own little world. But that’s okay. Everybody knows me here.”

    Putin’s live call-in program last week seems to assert this very vision of reality. In response to questions about southeast Ukraine, he hastened to give his own version of the last several months’ events: Ousted president Yanukovich didn’t refuse to sign the EU agreement; he only said he could not sign it on the existing terms. Russia never planned to annex the Crimea. The only way to restore order in Ukraine is through dialogue and democratic procedure – not with troops, tanks and the Air Force. Reporters Pyotr Tverdov and Aleksandra Samarina say that Putin’s message was for internal use only, not addressed to the rest of the world: In it, he asserted to his own people what it means to be Russian. Stanislav Belkovsky, on the other hand, describes the call-in show as being directed outward: “Putin was not talking to Russia; he was mainly addressing the West (the US and the EU) and Ukraine – the people of Ukraine, to be more precise.” Yet, no matter the angle from which you view it, the message was the same: Russia is a world unto itself – a “fourth world” (as Belkovsky puts it) in which the law of the jungle reigns supreme.

    Will more parts of Ukraine follow the Crimea into that world? The answer will come May 11, when several cities in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces hold referendums on federalization and self-determination. As “people’s governors” and “people’s militias” continued to take over these embattled towns, the acting Kiev authorities tried hard to convince US Vice-President Joe Biden that their plans for reform will work, as long as they have the necessary support. As if to belie that claim, confrontations have increased: Armed attackers have beset checkpoints and government buildings; military aircraft have come under fire; and militias have taken hostages, including members of an OSCE military mission. Is this confrontation being instigated by the US (as Sergei Markov argues) in an attempt to wage a new “cold war” in Russia’s backyard? Or are those who are painted as the victims really the aggressors in a psychological war waged via the media, as Yulia Latynina maintains?

    In support of the latter contention, Viktor Davydov cites new legislation that will restrict the Russian Internet, introducing “norms that will be catastrophic for Russia’s blogosphere” – including a requirement for service providers to give the FSB access to users’ private communication. Russians will likely have less access to information from abroad, as well. In a parallel move, the Foreign Ministry has issued a restricted travel advisory to staff in many branches of security and law enforcement, covering a list of destinations that includes over 100 countries. More encouragement for Russians to remain in their “own little world”?

    Curiously enough, Russian foreign policy expert Sergei Karaganov faults Chancellor Merkel herself for being out of touch with reality: “She doesn’t see that first, her world is reeling, coming apart at the seams; and second, it’s a very small world. This is 5% to 10% of humanity.” Even this tight community is far from like-minded, claims Yevgeny Grigoryev: He argues that the US is dragging Germany into a conflict that in many ways is against Berlin’s interests. Should she follow a German blogger’s suggestion by flying to Moscow and negotiating with Putin on a solution to the Ukraine crisis, rather than siding with Obama? One thing is clear: The world of Eastern Europe is changing drastically enough to bring all sides out of their comfort zone.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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