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

    Letter From the Editors: April 20-May 3, 2015

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

    Know Thy Enemy (and Thy Friend): Recovery, Détente and Protection in Russia and the CIS

    With Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the EU scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2016, many of Kiev’s supporters in Europe are concerned that the reforms they have been pushing for will not happen quickly enough. The IMF and other funders have already stepped up to provide 30 billion euros to shore up the economy, but Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk is asking for more: “The best way to win the war against Russian-led aggression is to make Ukraine a success story – to make Ukraine an example for everyone.*** We are not simply asking for money, meaning more loans to repay the ones we already took out. That doesn’t work. The best ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine is investments.” Will the West buy into this idea, and what will it expect in return?

    As Kiev continues to play up the theme of Russian aggression, Moscow’s public messages have been more conciliatory of late. For example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a radio interview that Moscow is ready to cooperate with Washington on a common agenda, as long as the US does not dictate the terms. Putin said something similar last Saturday on a national news program. Vladimir Frolov compares this new foreign policy gesture to the Nixon-Brezhnev “détente.” However, he says, a key condition for Moscow is that the US stay out of Russia’s business (read: the entire post-Soviet space). “The problem with this proposal is that it comes from an alternate reality. No American president is going to have a discussion with Moscow about delineating spheres of influence.*** The time for such geopolitical deals is long gone, never to be seen again except on Russian TV.”

    Thus, the underlying message to the Russian public (and beyond) is that the West is an “enemy at the gates,” encroaching on the sovereignty of Russia. Moscow’s highest decision-makers have been sold on this idea, too: It is the cornerstone of the Defense Ministry’s 20-trillion ruble rearmament program. Yet, as Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin says in an interview with Novaya gazeta, NATO would never start a combat operation against nuclear-armed Russia, and Russia is now unlikely to send “polite little green men” anywhere else in Eastern Europe (as it did in the Crimea), since it is now facing sanctions and international isolation. So why is tension still escalating? Dvorkin ascribes this tendency to a “shared psychosis” between Russia and NATO, fed by the financial appetite of the defense industry complex.

    As an analogy to Russia’s public saber-rattling, Mikhail Fishman cites the rhetoric of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov – except that instead of being addressed to the West, it’s aimed straight at Moscow. Kadyrov recently instructed his security staff to “shoot to kill” Russian federal law-enforcement officers when they are on Chechen territory without his knowledge: “If you are the master of your territory, you should be in control. Enough is enough. We have been humiliated, insulted.” Sound familiar? One subtext here is that Russian FSB agents have been trying to ferret out who orchestrated the February murder of prominent oppositionist Boris Nemtsov. Their prime suspect, Ruslan Geremeyev – a big wheel in Chechen security circles – has remained mysteriously inaccessible. And now Russian media have suddenly reported the case is closed (presumably on orders from Kadyrov’s longtime patron, Vladimir Putin).

    Another Putin protégé, Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, also made remarks about sovereignty this week. First, he announced he will not go to Moscow to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, but will attend Belarus’s events instead. Then, he said in his annual address to parliament: “We are closely associated with Russia, we are brothers, but we want to live in our own apartment.” The question is: Will there still be a door between the apartments?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #16

    Letter From the Editors: April 13-19, 2015

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    Issue #16 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #16 Table of Contents

    Putin Gets Personal; Ukraine Travels Back to the 1990s; and Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin Breaks Up Hunger Strikes

    Putin’s annual live call-in show dealt with the usual handful of issues: promises to fix specific domestic problems, talk about Russia’s place on the geopolitical stage, and an economic sparring match with former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin. According to Vedomosti, the president’s beloved format of touching base with average Russians no longer has anything interesting or original to offer. And instead of being the spontaneous Q&A session it presents itself as, the call-in show is as scripted as it gets. But one thing that stands out (and perhaps speaks to its careful planning) is Putin’s surprisingly conciliatory tone on such thorny issues as Ukraine and Western sanctions. This is particularly jarring given the stepped-up propaganda on federal television channels in the days leading up to the call-in show – an intentional move to put Putin in a gentler light? In contrast to the crackdown on the opposition (Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia offices in Moscow were searched by authorities during Putin’s live show), the Russian president seems to be saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”

    Things are not going according to the script for Russia’s defense industry. Despite promises to get tough with corrupt officials who pocket funds allocated to major federal projects, the problem continues to spin out of control. This week, Putin dispatched Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the military-industrial sector, to the site of the future Vostochny cosmodrome: Workers there had declared a strike (and eventually a hunger strike) because they have not been paid for several months. Rogozin proudly reported that his arm-twisting paid off, and blamed the issue on corrupt managers appointed under the previous defense minister. Yet the organizers of the strikes promptly lost their jobs, writes The Moscow Times. And of course the problem is systemic – even the creation of a special commission designed to “strike the moment any ultrapatriotic defense industry manager transfers state funds allocated for weapons production into an unauthorized bank account” won’t be enough.

    Systemic problems of a different kind emerged in Ukraine – Kiev was rocked by three high-profile murders this week. The victims are journalists Oles Buzina and Sergei Sukhobok, and former Party of Regions deputy Oleg Kalashnikov. What connects all three victims? According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, all three had information on “who had steered the development of the Ukraine situation – from the Independence Square [protests and reprisals] to the Donetsk Basin conflict – and why.” The brazen murders shocked Kiev, and immediately spawned several conspiracy theories. Some claim the murders were carried out by Russian special services to further destabilize the situation in Ukraine. Some say the assassinations are the work of Ukrainian radicals. This theory gained credence after an organization calling itself the “Ukrainian Insurgent Army” sent a letter claiming responsibility for the attacks. The mysterious organization also expressed readiness to wage a “merciless fight” against those it considers enemies of Ukraine. Is Ukraine “turning into Al Capone’s Chicago, or just going back to the ‘wild ’90s?’ ” lamented Rada Deputy Borislav Beryoza

    State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin also tried to rally the masses – on the pages of Vedomosti. Naryshkin called out the US for pressuring Europe on anti-Russia sanctions and defense issues, calling this a revival of the “colonizer instinct.” But, wonders Tatyana Stanovaya, isn’t Naryshkin taking a page out of Washington’s book by lecturing the Europeans on who they should (and should not) ally themselves with?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #15

    Letter From the Editors: April 6-12, 2015

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    Issue #15 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #15 Table of Contents

    Controversy, Intrigue, Skepticism in the Former Soviet Union

    Ukraine’s national parliament this week passed a series of laws bound to aggravate the already dismal relations with Russia and the separatists in Ukraine’s southeast. Legislators passed a resolution declaring the 1917-1991 Soviet government in Ukraine a totalitarian regime, and banned communist symbols and propaganda in the country, effectively disenfranchising the present-day Communist Party of Ukraine. Supreme Rada deputies also granted veteran status to those who fought for Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. And in another dig at the Soviet past, they elected to abandon the Soviet tradition of celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany with triumphant military pageantry on Victory Day. Instead, Ukraine will now honor the victims of World War II in the introspective Western tradition by observing the time of remembrance and reconciliation for those who lost their lives during the Second World War.

    Controversy flared up elsewhere in the former Soviet Union this week. Russia continued to press its wary partners in the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union to agree to expedite the introduction of a single currency. That’s a bad idea, says Artur Gushchin. According to him, such a high level of integration presupposes robust trade volumes, expansive cross-border investment programs, comprehensive market integration and closely coordinated macroeconomic policies among member countries. Gushchin says the EaEU currently has none of these features. Beyond the EaEU, former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili stirred controversy by publicly lashing out against his former political protégé, current President Giorgy Margvelashvili, saying he had “misjudged him as a politician and as a person.”

    Another leader who feels “misjudged,” Aleksandr Lukashenko, feels his unwarranted title of “last dictator in Europe” should be passed on to someone else. Although the Belarussian president didn’t name any names, he clearly seems to have been hinting at Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the West seems too preoccupied with the Kremlin’s recent streak of miscreant machoism to focus substantial criticism on problems with democracy and civil liberties in Belarus.

    In addition to its foreign detractors, Russia has its fair share of domestic cynics willing to voice their opinions. Vladislav Inozemtsev leveled criticism against Russia’s military modernization strategy, calling it misguided, archaic and generally detrimental to Russia’s economic development, technological progress and security. Pavel Luzin shares the same misgivings about Russia’s incoherent space exploration policies – in particular the decision to pursue development of the Vostochny cosmodrome and the Angara family of launch vehicles. The bigger question, he says, is why is Russia even in space at all? And another Russia skeptic, Stepan Sulashkin, puts Russia’s role in BRICS in stark perspective: He maintains that despite assuming the rotating presidency of that organization, Russia can do little to reverse its members’ largely justified negative view of Russia’s economic and global leadership potential.

    Such assessments didn’t seem to deter Athens’s new leadership from reaching out to Russia. Was Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s trip to Moscow an effort to drum up financial and political backing, or did he have a broader geopolitical agenda in mind, such as forging an anti-EU alliance? Tsipras’s SYRIZA would not be the only radical party in Europe to get funding from Moscow. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party reportedly got a loan from a bank with Russian ties after encountering trouble securing financing at home in France. Nezavisimaya gazeta writes that although an alliance between Moscow and Europe’s radical, anti-EU parties may seem to have something to offer both sides, the negative aspects of a long-term alliance generally outweigh any potential positive tactical benefits.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor


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