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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #51-52

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 15-31, 2014

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    Issue #51-52 Letter From the Editors
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    Another year has flown by. The year 2014 was certainly anything but uneventful for Russia and the post-Soviet space. Many of the most significant events continue to dominate the headlines, most notably the crisis in Ukraine, as well as the ensuing falling out between Russia and the West. Indeed, rather than cooling down, the conflict in Ukraine seems to be only heating up.

    Ukraine’s Supreme Rada voted to renounce Ukraine’s nonaligned status and seek closer ties with the European Union and NATO in a move that has prompted many high-ranking Russian officials, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to view Ukraine as a potential military adversary. Kiev is also not backing down on its approach to breakaway regions in the east. The country’s National Security and Defense Council has been granted broader powers and its secretary, Aleksandr Turchinov, increasingly sees military force as the only means to resolve the conflict with separatists in the Donetsk Basin. Threats of renewed bloodshed come alongside tough economic austerity measures that might just push some Ukrainians over the edge, according to some analysts.

    Russia is facing tough economic conditions of its own as the ruble continues to slide following a drop in oil prices and increased Western economic sanctions. In his annual year-end press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed Russia’s dismal economy. He blamed the situation on external factors, not internal systemic failures, and chastised the efforts of the West to chain the “Russian bear,” and remove its teeth and claws, something Putin is not about to let happen. The Russian leader also sought to portray the drop in global oil prices as a boon to Russia’s economy, as it will force diversification away from the commodities sector. He also believes the Russia will “inevitably” bounce back in two years but provided no concrete specifics regarding how that might happen.

    Former Russian finance minister Aleksei Kudrin was a little less vague in his assessments of the Russian economy but was less than forthcoming about his political ambitions in an interview with The New Times. In addition to oil prices and Western sanctions, he blamed the economic downturn on Russia’s wanton spending habits and politics. He had “no comment” on whether he might seek a Russian leadership position in the future.

    The crisis in Ukraine has ratcheted up tensions between Russia and the West to cold war levels. The West continues to accuse Russia of backing the separatists in Ukraine and put pressure on Moscow for its annexation of the Crimea, and the Kremlin continues to defend its actions and policies.

    What’s most worrying is that behind the heated rhetoric, both sides are boosting military capacities. Russia’s chief of the General Staff has promised to revamp military forces, procuring “up to 100 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, up to 30 surface ships and submarines, and up to 600 armored vehicles” every year until the Russian Armed Forces are completely rearmed, by 2021 at the latest. Russia’s defiant stance has confounded the West, and in particular Europe, which is scrambling to find an appropriate response. Whatever that response might be, we can only hope that the words of T. S. Elliot ring true: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.”

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 8-14, 2014

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    Issue #50 Letter From the Editors
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    War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.

    These words inscribed on the government building where Winston Smith works in George Orwell’s “1984” have been cited often (perhaps too often) to describe regimes where the state controls the media. And yet we couldn’t resist quoting them again here, because even a news headline in Slon.ru this week refers sarcastically to the “Ministry of Truth.” Truth be told, there is actually quite a bit of focus on media spin in recent news from Russia.

    The “1984” comparison above was inspired by the Kiev government’s newly created Ministry of Informational Policy. One of its functions will be to protect citizens from “incomplete, untimely or inaccurate information,” as well as manipulation tactics. Besides deflecting negative spin, newly minted information minister Yury Stets will also have the opportunity to create “national information products” (presumably, to help project a more positive image of Ukraine).

    Since the West has been overtly supporting the fledgling Kiev authorities, the underlying implication here is that the “bad” information about Ukraine must be coming from somewhere else, namely Moscow. The Western media have been leveling more direct accusations at Russia: For example, London’s Financial Times claims (as reported by Pyotr Iskenderov) that “the mass demonstrations that swept across Central and Eastern European countries in 2012-2013 against the development of shale gas deposits in Europe were financed by Russia – or, to be more precise, by Gazprom.” The governments of those countries (for example, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania) did not confirm those reports.

    Of course, the Russian energy industry has good reason to be nervous about competition: Global oil prices are dropping, and so is the value of the ruble. President Vladimir Putin and his economic team have been trying hard to spin this development in a positive way: Now Russian-made products will be able to undersell the competition! On the other hand, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev appeared on live TV this week to deliver a more sober message: “To be honest, strictly speaking, we have never rebounded from the 2008 crisis.” Might this statement trigger a new “information war” within the Russian elite?

    Incidentally, any readers who are tempted to think that such propaganda battles are exclusively the province of the former Communist Bloc should take a look at the Ukraine Freedom Support Act passed by the US Congress this week. Section 8 of the bill presents an initiative for “increasing the quantity of Russian-language broadcasting into the countries of the former Soviet Union in order to counter Russian Federation propaganda,” with the priority targets being Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

    Lost and Found in Translation. One of the aspects of Dmitry Medvedev’s live interview that caught economic analysts’ attention was his use of the Russian term devalvatsia. It’s a cognate of “devaluation,” but can have two meanings: not only the standard sense of “devaluation” (i.e., a deliberate policy by the government to make the domestic currency less valuable, often by printing more money) but also “depreciation” (i.e., an involuntary process whereby the currency loses its value). Instead of glossing over what’s happening to the ruble as devalvatsia, Medvedev explained that he was using the term “in the sense of an economic process, as the weakening of the exchange rate***of the national currency.” Should Medvedev be praised or rebuked for counteracting the notion that “ignorance is strength”?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 1-7, 2014

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    Issue #49 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #49 Table of Contents

    Putin’s Turkish gambit; Kiev’s new starting line-up; and Russia’s Walking Dead – the Politburo 2.0

    Revenge in a dish best served with a side of Turkey. At least that’s how Moscow seems to see it. The big news on the international arena this week is Russia’s decision to halt construction of the South Stream gas pipeline. The controversial project was a bone of contention between Moscow and Brussels for years, with the latter insisting that Gazprom abide by the Third Energy Package – something the Russian side refused to do. It seems EU officials were caught by surprise when Russia decided to reroute the pipeline, but according to Izvestia, Moscow’s démarche was hardly unexpected. The newspaper cites Putin’s comments back in May 2014: “If we continue to run into problems over South Stream – and Brussels is constantly putting spokes in our wheels over this project – we will consider other options: via countries that are not EU members.”

    Now, it looks like Putin is following through on his threat by promising that Russia will build a new gas hub with Turkey. While analyst Mikhail Krutikhin calls the announcement an attempt to save face, Izvestia is heralding a new era of a Russo-Turkish renaissance. Political analyst Svetlana Lure sees Putin’s recent visit to Ankara as a sign that the US’s main ally in the Middle East is tired of playing second fiddle and wants a bigger geopolitical role. If the joint project with Russia goes ahead, Turkey, which already receives Russian gas at a significant discount, would be able to make a very tempting offer to Europe. Perhaps this is how an increasingly socially conservative Turkey hopes to realize its “neo-Ottomanist” policy.

    South Stream’s demise was a cause for celebration for at least one player – Kiev, which now hopes to prove its mettle as a more reliable gas transit partner for Europe. Given a new starting line-up heavy on financial experts in the Ukrainian government, which the Supreme Rada approved this week, it looks like Kiev is gearing up for a fight, writes Slon.ru. Among the newcomers, those who particularly stand out (and can now boast Ukrainian citizenship) are Georgian Aleksandr Kvitashvili, Lithuanian native Aivaras Abromavicius and American Natalie Jaresko. Kvitashvili, who helped develop Ukraine’s medical reform, has been appointed health minister. Seasoned financial professionals Abromavicius and Jaresko have been chosen to head the Economics Ministry and Finance Ministry, respectively.

    Can these fresh faces actually give Ukraine the fresh start it needs? Or will they go down in flames, like so many go-getters who have tried to reform Ukraine’s bureaucratic leviathan?

    Finally, Vladimir Putin gave his annual Message to the Federal Assembly this week. The president focused heavily on Russia’s historical role in the world, the reunification with the Crimea, and ambitious economic goals (for example, increasing productivity by at least 5% each year). The much-anticipated message fell short of expectations, many experts note, given that Putin failed to outline any concrete measures. Vladislav Inozemtsev contrasted Putin’s speech with US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, pointing out that US leaders clearly state the tasks that must be accomplished and which agencies are responsible for them. The Russian president, meanwhile, made vague threats against currency speculators, stating that “we have enough leverage to deal with them, and the time has come for us to use this leverage.”

    Expert Yevgeny Minchenko attributes the current crisis of the Russian political regime to the “Politburo 2.0” set up by Putin during the early days of his rule, which relies heavily on the security, defense and law-enforcement establishment. The problem, however, is that the “law-enforcement corporation” is hardly equipped to deal with Russia’s economic challenges.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor


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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 24-30, 2014

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    Issue #48 Letter From the Editors
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    Come Again?

    What Vladimir Putin’s characteristically glib remarks lack in substance is often made up for by the Russian president’s peculiarly persuasive style of delivering them. Putin’s interview with ITAR-TASS this past weekend was no exception. He spoke offhandedly and forcefully about seemingly anything but concrete steps to address the pressing matters facing Russia, such as Ukraine, international sanctions and the deteriorating domestic economy, and instead focused on mundane and, unusually enough, personal topics.

    Instead of outlining remedies for the aches and pains ordinary Russians are feeling on account of the flagging economy, he commented that the maladies might not be all that bad. For example, he suggested that Russia actually benefits from a weak ruble. That remark did nothing to assure Anastasia Bashkatova, for one, that the government has any vision for dealing with the mounting domestic crisis.

    The president’s most recent heart-to-heart comes before his annual “state of the nation” message to the Federal Assembly. Commentator Tatyana Stanovaya writes that this year’s address will differ from those of years past in that the president is essentially drafting it on his own, without the help of cabinet ministers or government agencies. She says this is increasingly emblematic of Putin’s style of governance following his self-imposed isolation. His circle of friends and confidants is shrinking, his decisions are based more on emotions than rational thought, and his worldview is becoming more archaic. So what should we expect when the president bares his thoughts in the latest installment of the “world according to Putin”?

    Many of the Kremlin’s pronouncements and policies are prompting observers to question whether Putin himself realizes what he is saying or even thinking. At the very least, writes Mikhail Fishman, some experts wonder if he fully understands what he hopes to achieve in Ukraine and through his foreign policy in general.

    The US certainly doesn’t seem to entirely grasp what the Kremlin is seeking to accomplish, let alone communicate. Granted, that sentiment is fairly mutual: Many Russian policymakers and experts queried by Yury Paniyev believe the US is intent on seeking regime change in Russia amid its quest for global domination. (Be sure to check out Sergei Karaganov’s article for a nuanced picture of the latest geopolitical narrative in vogue in Russia these days.)

    The US is not the only country mystified by the rhetoric coming from Russia. China is also confused by what the regime is saying (or rather, not saying) about the clouds gathering over Russia’s economy. And while the US and China might not fully understand the message Putin is trying to send the international community, Sergei Markov believes that many European leaders secretly realize that the EU’s own message and response to the Ukrainian crisis – and more broadly, its Russia policy – have failed and need drastic revision. According to him, the Kremlin is hoping former European “allies” will “come to their senses” and get their fellow EU members to see the wisdom of a more balanced approach to Moscow. Could sympathetic German, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian politicians champion Russia’s cause, interpreting its rhetoric and interests for a broader European audience?

    Sadly enough, the last weeks of 2014 are rounding out a year of crisis – at the very least in Russian-Western communication, to say nothing of relations.

    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. 17-23, 2014

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    Issue #47 Letter From the Editors
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    Spheres for Fears: The Political Physics of Russian Foreign Policy

    In Russian foreign affairs, there is a persistent notion of “spheres of influence” – which brings to mind a picture of a universe where large celestial bodies exert forces of attraction, drawing smaller bodies toward them to become satellites. This model describes gravitational fields in the cosmos rather well, but it might not apply to the large and small bodies that coexist on our compact planet. (Let’s remember that there have been at least a dozen Russian- and Soviet-born Nobel laureates in Physics, but only two people from that corner of the world have won the Peace Prize: Mikhail Gorbachev and Andrei Sakharov.)

    But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment and consider this week’s news from Russia’s near and distant abroad in the light of the “spheres of influence” model. We can go pretty far. From Abkhazia, for example, Arda Inal-Ipa writes an insistent opinion piece about Sukhum’s perception of the recent draft treaty on alliance and integration submitted by Moscow: The majority of Abkhazians perceive things like a “merger” of the two countries’ border patrol forces as essentially “swallowing up” the small breakaway territory. “It is impossible to find a compromise route if the destinations are different.”

    Meanwhile, as Abkhazia seeks to avoid being pulled too far into its neighbor’s gravitational field, Kazakhstan seems to be doing the same in a more subtle way. President Nursultan Nazarbayev made an unscheduled speech that sounded on the surface like an economic address – urging the people to tighten their belts during a difficult upcoming financial stretch – but experts heard an implicit political message that Astana is ready to go it alone, or perhaps even seek out new allies, as Russia and Ukraine remain mired in conflict. Speaking of which – Ukrainian political analysts are dismayed with an order by President Poroshenko to investigate a recent deal to ship in coal from South Africa. Poroshenko claims the pricing formula smacks of corruption – but is he actually trying to sink the import deal so that Ukraine will be forced to buy coal from Russia?

    When it comes to economic partnerships, Valery Zubov and Aleksei Makarkin say that Moscow’s recent “Chinese vector” could be a good thing, but it will turn into a dead-end road if it goes as far as reorienting Russia’s fundamental values from the West to the East. This remark, again, seems to harbor a subtext of “spheres of influence”: For a country that is so intent on preserving and expanding its own “sphere,” the worst nightmare would be to slip into the gravitational field of an even more powerful country: China.

    Could that be why Putin left the G-20 summit in Brisbane unexpectedly early, leaving the rest of the world leaders to marvel at China’s international successes (which included an expanded visa agreement with the US and a new free trade agreement with Australia)?

    Here is one piece of the global puzzle that doesn’t seem to fit the “spheres of influence” model: The early elections held in Novorossia two weeks ago have prompted the Kiev authorities to cut off financial support, including pension benefits, for the separatist territories. According to the gravitational model, that move would allow Russia to swoop in and claim eastern Ukraine as another satellite – right? Wrong. Moscow is no hurry to offer economic assistance to its embattled neighbors.

    Could Novorossia be the “black hole” that disrupts the laws of political physics?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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