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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #24

    Letter From the Editors: June 9-15, 2014

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    Issue #24 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #24 Table of Contents

    Moscow, Kiev, the West – Who Will Blink First?

    These days, “compromise” seems to have become a dirty word. Newly minted Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko – known for being a pragmatist (as any successful businessman would be) – made it clear in his inauguration speech that Ukraine’s federalization is not an option. Ditto for making Russian the second state language in certain regions. Leaders of the insurgency in southeast Ukraine, not to be outdone, are refusing to lay down arms and compromise with Kiev. Representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” were once again shut out of negotiations conducted with the participation of Kiev, Moscow and the OSCE.

    The situation between Russia and the West doesn’t look any more promising, due to a pathological lack of trust, write political analysts Igor Bunin and Aleksei Makarkin. Russia is unwilling to give up even one iota of influence in the post-Soviet space and isn’t about to take the West up on its word that it won’t expand NATO eastward. The West, for its part, does not trust Russia following Putin’s quasi-legal election to a third term as president and the 2008 war with Georgia. The media, busy stoking old fears, aren’t helping, either. So is a drawn-out stalemate imminent? Or will someone have the guts to make the first move?

    At least there were some unexpected compromises on the domestic front. In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended an Internet entrepreneur conference in Moscow this year. The man who swore during his 2012 election campaign that he doesn’t use the Internet suddenly decided to establish dialogue with one of Russia’s quickest-growing industries. Experts expected feathers to fly, since the Russian government has come down hard on netizens this year, equating blogs with media outlets and pushing for greater Internet regulation. But surprisingly, writes slon.ru, the meeting took place in a very amicable atmosphere. Does this mean the Great Firewall of Russia is getting put on the back burner?

    Not everyone sees Putin indulging his bridge-building side. Former Yeltsin adviser Georgy Satarov believes the Ukrainian crisis is the straw that broke the camel’s back – i.e., the beginning of the end for the Putin regime. Not surprising, considering how much the Russian elite stands to lose from Western sanctions. But what will Putin’s inevitable departure look like? A takeover by the current president’s most hawkish retinue? In that case, Russia is in for a new Time of Troubles. Victory by the affronted wing of the Putin elite, which has villas, wives and mistresses overseas and doesn’t want to bring back the cold war? Or is there a chance Putin will wake up and pull back from the brink in the nick of time?

    One thing is for certain: Forget the summer blockbusters – all the cliffhangers are right here!

    Xenia Grushetsky

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #23

    Letter From the Editors: June 2-8, 2014

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    Issue #23 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #23 Table of Contents

    Ukraine’s new president wasted no time getting down to brass tacks after assuming power June 7. In his inauguration speech, Pyotr Poroshenko outlined a plan for stemming the unrest plaguing his country. The “candy king” promised to travel to the restive east to sweeten relations with disaffected residents and promote a peace plan. He also vowed to pursue political reforms, including decentralization and an anticorruption drive, as well as to sign the fateful association agreement with the EU – the document his predecessor didn’t sign, unleashing the chaos that sent Ukraine reeling.

    However, the maelstrom is showing little sign of dissipating. In fact, commentators have begun to compare Ukraine to Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya. Nikolai Bobkin, peddling the official Russian line, argues that the US is fomenting civil war in Ukraine by supporting the “junta,” the Ukrainian nationalists, and now Poroshenko and his antiterrorist operation. Conversely, Kremlin critics say the mess is all Russia’s doing. Yulia Latynina says that Russia is “creating problems” in Ukraine, supporting there what it absolutely would never tolerate in Russia: calls for self-determination, referendums and separatism. She believes Putin is ultimately shooting himself in the foot: His Ukraine policy serves to make the Russian world smaller, not larger, which flies in the face of Putin’s long-term geopolitical objectives. Yekaterina Kuznetsova agrees: Although the Kremlin’s gamble of pandering to Soviet-era nostalgia in southeastern Ukraine may bring limited short-term political gains, in the end, the tactic will bring long-term losses to Russia’s economy, society and international standing. Putin certainly seems to be backed into a corner, Vasily Kashin writes: He can’t let down the pro-Russian separatists who have pinned their hopes on Russian assistance, if not direct military intervention.

    And while it certainly looks as if Russia has weapons (if not boots) on the ground in Ukraine, Moscow is not about to admit that anytime soon. In fact, Russia’s General Staff recently called foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations the No. 1 threat to peace in the world today. Granted, it was referring to “Western-sponsored color revolutions.” (Maybe someone needs to remind the General Staff how the Crimea wound up under Russian control! Or maybe that was the result of a “color counterrevolution,” as Aleksandr Golts suggests, tongue-in-cheek.) Interestingly, Moscow was uncharacteristically unperturbed by the ouster of Abkhaz president Aleksandr Ankvab following local unrest. Is Moscow making a pretense of standing by its noninterference doctrine, or is it starting to realize it can’t always have its way in the post-Soviet space?

    This week also saw some intrigues on the Russian home front. A Just Russia party leader Sergei Mironov wants to introduce an imperative mandate in the State Duma that would allow parties to oust unruly faction members. And Igor Sechin is seeking to break up Gazprom’s export monopoly (as well as garner some cash and influence) by pushing for Gazprom’s recapitalization.

    Ukrainian PM Arseny Yatsenyuk is doing a little gas wheeling and dealing of his own. He wants to negotiate a more advantageous gas deal from Russia, and to create a system where European buyers purchase Russian gas on Ukraine’s border with Russia, so that the gas traversing its territory is no longer “Russian” gas.

    While “Yats” is busy trying to give Russia the boot from Ukraine’s gas transit system, Bulgarian politicians are busy trying to keep the Russian South Stream pipeline project alive and well in their country, much to the chagrin of the EU, which wants to shut the project down to punish Russia for annexing the Crimea. So far, Socialist-controlled Sofia isn’t budging, but perhaps the next Bulgarian government won’t be so stubborn.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #22

    Letter From the Editors: May 26-June 1, 2014

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    Issue #22 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #22 Table of Contents

    Turn, Turn, Turn: The Season of a New President for Ukraine, New Strategic Directions for Russia

    As we look back over this week’s news, we see a persistent theme of allegiances. In the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, a clear majority declared allegiance to billionaire Pyotr Poroshenko. Or did they? Polina Khimshiashvili and Aleksei Nikolsky from Vedomosti report that many polling stations in eastern Ukraine did not even open on election day, and that barely one-third of those who did vote there favored Poroshenko. The new president’s own allegiances are a bit of a mystery as yet: While clearly welcomed by the West (US President Obama congratulated him on his victory even before all the votes were counted), Poroshenko in his first postelection press conference took pains to emphasize that he intends to grant a lot of autonomy to local governments (including those in separatist Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces) and to establish dialogue with Russia even after the bitterly disputed annexation of the Crimea.

    Meanwhile, Russia’s allegiance seems to be turning decisively toward China. Dmitry Minin, writing in the Strategic Culture Foundation Online Journal (a source that makes its Current Digest debut in this issue!), argues that the new agreement that Vladimir Putin signed with Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing in effect creates a military and political alliance between the two countries. In other words, it’s not all about gas and oil, as some have claimed.

    However, Fyodor Lukyanov cautions that Moscow should not put all of its eggs in the Beijing basket. True, United Europe has moved past its climax at the turn of the 21st century into an era of internal division and global insignificance. And yet Russia needs it now more than ever, like a beacon in a time of instability.

    In response, we could imagine Putin saying: Forget Europe – Eurasia is where it’s at! Indeed, a landmark treaty creating the Eurasian Economic Union was signed May 29 by founding members Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Viktoria Panfilova quotes Putin as saying there is much broader interest as well. “No wonder the world’s key economic players are showing great interest in this alliance. Every time I go somewhere and talk to somebody, they all want to know how to establish relations with the future Eurasian Union.”

    As for the Russian home front, Putin’s wide-ranging aspirations may be compromising long-standing allegiances between him and the rich and powerful cronies who brought him to power. Stanislav Belkovsky makes cogent arguments that conditions in Russia are ripe for a “palace coup,” as the Russian president’s latest empire-building ambitions expose his loyal elite to a new round of sanctions from the West and risk dragging the country into a recession. The big question is: If we have to disavow our allegiance to Putin, then who will be our next leader?

    Lost and Found in Translation. Belkovsky’s colorful commentary on Putin’s betrayal of the elite offered some opportunity to reflect on when an idiom is translatable and when it’s not. We decided that the expression vynosit sor is izby [literally, “carry trash out of the hut”] could be replaced with the more culturally familiar “air dirty laundry in public.” On the other hand, we felt we had to preserve verbatim the tongue-in-cheek editorial remark that Belkovsky makes to assure readers that he’s not advocating revolution: “We’re just fixing the primus stove.” Educated Russian readers recognize this phrase from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “Master and Margarita” as a disingenuous protestation of innocence. What character said it, and in what context? Turn to the Russian Federation section to find out!

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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