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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #14

    Letter From the Editors: March 30-April 5, 2015

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    Issue #14 Letter From the Editors
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    Out-of-the-Box Solutions: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Beyond

    Language learners and translators alike are confounded by words and expressions that mean totally different things in different contexts. One such phrase in English that this week’s news brings to mind is “out of the box.” In general parlance, it means coming up with a creative solution (“thinking out of the box”). In the field of IT, on the other hand, an “out-of-the-box solution” means a product that is ready to do its job with no special effort or inventiveness required on the user’s part.

    The first meaning applies to the latest reports from Ukraine, which show that some are considering unusual, and even radical, ways to resolve the protracted crisis there. For example, the Opposition Bloc is forming a “shadow government” – complete with ministries of foreign affairs, internal affairs and others – for the avowed purpose of helping the Kiev authorities, not competing with them. Meanwhile, a Constitutional commission in Kiev is drafting a new Basic Law to change the status of regions within the country – particularly the Donetsk Basin. However, no status may be “special” enough for these separatist territories, short of full autonomy. So Vladislav Inozemtsev suggests an even more radical course of action for Kiev: Cut the DPR and LPR loose entirely, letting them be independent nations. Ukraine would lose a financially and politically burdensome region, and gain unity and homogeneity.

    Looking to the Asian side of the CIS, the other meaning of “out of the box” comes to mind. Uzbekistan reelected President Islam Karimov March 30 by a virtually unanimous vote, continuing a regime that has already lasted a quarter of a century. Just to the north, Kazakhstan has set an early election for April 26. Even though there are several parties officially running, everyone knows who will win the race: perennial leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. Why? As Russian columnist Sergei Markov writes in NG: “Highly sensitive to trends in the public mood, which sometimes pull in different directions, he is always a step ahead, proposing optimal solutions not only in economic and social relations, but on foreign policy issues.” It’s understandable that voters in both of these Central Asian republics want an “out-of-the-box” president. At least they know what they’re getting: stability in a region between an embattled Russia and their controversial Caspian neighbor, Iran.

    Speaking of which – Fyodor Lukyanov hails this week’s negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program as a success for global diplomacy, which had gotten used to applying rough-and-ready military threats and economic sanctions to cut the troublesome Gordian knots of international conflicts, rather than patiently unraveling them. “Once it became clear that this knot could not be cut in one swift motion,***they had to get involved in very complicated negotiations where they risked losing face.” In other words, realizing that “out-of-the-box” solutions weren’t good enough, the ad hoc negotiating group had to think “out of the box” to come up with reasonable nuclear benchmarks for Iran and open up the possibility of easing sanctions.

    Of course, some commentators try to look beyond the Iranian success to a larger geopolitical context. For example, Kirill Benediktov sees Washington’s overtures to Tehran as a bid to form an alliance that would counter Beijing. Meanwhile, Nikolai Bobkin says the West is courting Iran to counter ISIS – but warns that by simultaneously fomenting conflict in Yemen, the US and its allies are defeating their own purposes, playing a dangerous geopolitical game. Remember what Pandora let out of the box?


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor


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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #13

    Letter From the Editors: March 23-29, 2015

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    Issue #13 Letter From the Editors
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    Oligarch vs. Oligarch – the End of the Year of Kolomoisky

    “Never mix business and politics” seems to be the central message of the conflict playing itself out between President Pyotr Poroshenko and Dnepropetrovsk Governor Igor Kolomoisky. The standoff between the two heavyweights – who both made their fortunes in Ukraine’s seedy oligarchic economy – ended in an armed siege of the offices of Ukraine’s oil pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta and the eventual dismissal of Kolomoisky as governor. It seems Poroshenko came out the winner. But did Kolomoisky really lose, experts wonder? According to Dmitry Marunich, Kolomoisky merely retreated to his fallback position. He is no longer governor, but he managed to score some major reputational points both in Dnepropetrovsk Province and the neighboring regions. Coupled with his wealth, this makes him an even more formidable player on the Ukrainian chessboard.

    Analyst Vitaly Gaidukevich believes that the oligarchy system in Ukraine is endemic (at least for now), so it’s time for the state and big business to work out a compromise for the good of the country.

    Compromise seems hard to find in business these days. Case in point – Russia’s “national treasure,” Gazprom. Why is the company so determined to dig in its heels when it comes to reevaluating Ukraine’s ill-fated 2010 gas contract, wonders energy expert Mikhail Krutikhin? After all, the Russian gas giant has no problem revising terms and conditions for its other customers. The only explanation is that economic common sense is taking a back seat to political considerations. Of course, given that Ukraine is now in a position to find gas somewhere else (it is already purchasing a good share of the “blue fuel” from Poland, Slovakia and Hungary), Gazprom is simply going to lose its biggest foreign client.

    But Russia’s officials seem on the warpath regardless of how silly they look – take the Russian ambassador to Denmark, who this week threatened to put Danish Forces on Moscow’s nuclear hit list if Copenhagen decides to join the US missile defense system. His exact words: “It would not be so peaceful; relations with Russia would deteriorate. It’s your decision, of course, but I’d like to warn you that you would lose money and security.”

    What is the ambassador thinking? asks Vedomosti. And given that his rank doesn’t exactly put him anywhere near the red button, it seems just about anyone these days can throw Russia’s “atomic weight” around, the publication laments.

    Not to be outdone in that department, the Chechen parliament decided it’s time to teach America a little history lesson as payback for considering supplying Ukraine with military aid. Parliamentary speaker Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov suggested sending “sophisticated weapons” to Mexico so it could get back the territories it lost after the 1846-1848 Mexican-American war. So look out, California and Texas! According to Novaya gazeta’s Kirill Martynov, “Not even America has reached such a level of real federalism in which each state has not only its own independent legislature, but also its own foreign policy and military doctrine.”

    At least Russia scored a tactical victory in the Moldovan autonomy of Gagauzia, which elected pro-Russian Irina Vlakh to head the region. Chisinau now worries that Moscow has set its sights on the rest of Moldova. Is a second Crimean scenario in the works?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #12

    Letter From the Editors: March 16-22, 2015

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    Issue #12 Letter From the Editors
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    Kremlin Crows About Crimea Crusade

    Ukraine, sickened by the festering wounds of war, saw another kind of ugly as the country’s feuding oligarchs began airing their dirty laundry in public. Taking advantage of current uncertainties, some oligarchs are calling into question the privatization schemes of “old guard” oligarchs in order to settle old scores. Will Ukrainian politics devolve into destructive squabbles over power and money among rival oligarchs at a time when Ukraine is still in a pitched battle with separatists over the terms of the Minsk agreements and struggling to keep its economy afloat?

    Despite troubling economic uncertainties of its own, Russia this week triumphantly celebrated the anniversary of the event most directly responsible for them. The accession of the Crimea one year ago was commemorated by among other things a documentary film extolling Vladimir Putin’s personal role in returning this sacred region to Russia. According to Andrei Sinitsyn, this largely propagandistic film aims to reinforce the president’s heroic image, as well as the negative image of the West. Tatyana Stanovaya says the film depicts Putin’s twisted logic and concept of reality – a logic of double standards and a version of reality in which all options, including the threat of nuclear war, are justified in the pursuit of Russia’s strategic interests, which Putin dangerously conflates with his own personal ambitions.

    Military-patriotic sentiment seems to be on the rise in Russia. The Kremlin’s “besieged fortress” and the “West is out to get Russia” narratives have become so pervasive and appealing that they may actually be working against the Kremlin. Sergei Kozhemyakin, for example, criticizes the current Kremlin administration for not doing enough to counter NATO. He believes the Kremlin is letting the West string red flags around Russia unchallenged. This hardliner sentiment comes against the backdrop of Russia’s abandonment of the CFE treaty (essentially forcing the European security arrangement back to the days of military deterrence, according to Aleksandr Golts) and open touting of Russia’s placement of Iskander missiles in the Crimea.

    Another common topic in Russia’s information war is an alleged rift in the West along a hypothetical Europe-US fault line. According to a popular Russian theory, Europe is tired of being the US’s lackey, which is why it is toying with the idea of creating a European Union army. It doesn’t want its security guarantees tied to compliance with US foreign policy demands. Is there some truth to this theory, or is it merely an attempt to sow discord in the West?

    Russia is dealing with its share of intrigue on the domestic front. Last month’s cold-blooded killing of longtime Putin critic Boris Nemtsov has fueled all sorts of suspicions and theories. Some analysts even speculate that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov may be somehow involved. Vladimir Frolov comments that a pattern of targeted violence against Kremlin critics perpetrated by Chechen security forces could indicate that the young Chechen leader is doing dirty deeds for Putin, giving him a privileged position in Putin’s power vertical and even some hold over the Russian leader. Does Kadyrov have his own personal political agenda?

    South Ossetian president Leonid Tibilov’s agenda is certainly clear. This week saw the signing of a Treaty of Alliance and Integration between Russia and South Ossetia that more or less gives the Georgian breakaway region equal status as a Russian Federation member. Much to the delight of the South Ossetian leader, the treaty was signed on March 18, the date the Crimea joined Russia last year. Who knows, perhaps another region neighboring Russia will join it sometime in the future.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #11

    Letter From the Editors: March 9-15, 2015

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    Issue #11 Letter From the Editors
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    Geopolitical Investments, International Armies and a Fifth Wheel: The Assertiveness of Europe

    Russian leaders like to talk about how the European Union slavishly follows US foreign policy, but in this week’s news, Europe has asserted itself as a dominant geopolitical player in its own right. In the wake of last month’s Minsk agreements among the “Normandy Four” (France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia), Kiev is now trying to satisfy Europe with domestic economic and political reforms. Russian State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin even goes as far as to call America a “fifth wheel” in the Normandy Four conflict resolution process: “Once again, the biggest threat to peace comes from across the ocean. How dare those Europeans do something without America’s involvement? The Americans cannot put up with the idea that they have been sidelined in the peace process.”

    Another reason that Kiev is turning to Europe for help, as reported by NG’s Tatyana Ivzhenko, is that the US has decided not to provide lethal weapons to the Ukrainian Army. (Granted, Washington did agree to furnish $75 million worth of nonlethal military equipment, plus 230 Humvees – but who’s counting?)

    On the economic front, the European Parliament just released a pessimistic report on Russia’s attractiveness (or lack thereof) to foreign business. It cites studies showing that there has been an economic gap between Russia and Europe since the Tsarist period, “with per capita GDP stuck at around half that of the advanced Western economies.” This assessment seems to have spurred Russian politicians, including the aforementioned Naryshkin, to urge Western entrepreneurs to invest in Russia.

    Europe’s economic clout is making itself felt in Central Asia, as well. The Turkmen authorities have suddenly announced a law giving permission for nongovernment gatherings to take place in public, a radical departure for the Berdymukhamedov regime. Experts see a clear financial motive here. According to Arkady Dubnov: “Turkmenistan is waiting for a proposal from Brussels on terms for direct gas supplies to Europe and the price for that gas. That is why Ashgabat is making decisions that could somewhat improve Turkmenistan’s image, which in turn could facilitate discussion of the gas deal in the European Parliament.”

    The news from Europe that made perhaps the biggest media splash this week is that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed a radical initiative to create a pan-European army. The plan is to consolidate the defense budgets of the individual countries, whose forces have been steadily shrinking in recent decades, partially because of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE – from which, incidentally, Russia declared its final withdrawal this week). Although Germany and Finland immediately supported Juncker’s proposal, Britain opposes it. Political commentator Pavel Felgengauer predicts that other “no” votes will follow – because such an army would either remain unused (if joining a war required the consensus of all 28 EU nations) or would become a pointless duplication of NATO. Plus, says Felgengauer, in the last 20 years the Europeans have never engaged in serious fighting without America’s help. Apparently, every geopolitical player needs reliable teammates.

    Lost and Found in Translation. In a March 13 commentary piece in Novaya gazeta, Yulia Latynina asks rhetorically whether Putin will remain the most krutoi patsan in Russia. This expression is composed of the adjective krutoi (literally “steep,” but figuratively used to mean “cool” or “tough”) and the noun patsan, a colloquialism that came into Russian usage about 100 years ago, meaning “kid” or “guy.” The online Russian-English dictionary Multitran suggests a translation for the two-word combination: “kingpin.” But since Latynina uses the expression in the superlative form, we couldn’t say “the most kingpin” – so we opted for “the baddest boy in Russia.” Happy reading!

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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