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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #30

    Letter From the Editors: July 20-26, 2015

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    Issue #30 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #30 Table of Contents

    The Lost Art of Compromise; Perils of Playing Hard to Get and the Demise of Old School Diplomacy

    With the Iran nuclear agreement reached last week, it would seem that Tehran went from the problem student in the back of the class to the star pupil in a matter of days. All it took was a little over a decade of tough negotiations. Nevertheless, the nuclear breakthrough is something to be studied by analysts and international relations experts for years to come, writes former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov. The parties powered through some tough times – pressure from domestic opposition, regime changes, etc. Why were the negotiations a success in the end? Both Ivanov and Vedomosti credit specific objectives, political will and readiness to compromise. Those are exactly the ingredients missing in the Ukrainian negotiating format, Ivanov adds. The Minsk agreements so far lack any specific objectives (except for some short-term tactical ones), and clearly no one is willing to budge an inch.

    Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko may be attempting to change that: He announced that Kiev will unilaterally pull back heavy equipment from the line of conflict. He also instructed Ukraine’s representatives in the Trilateral Contact Group to initiate an agreement with the OSCE and Russia on the creation of a 30-kilometer buffer zone, another Minsk agreement requirement. Is the Ukrainian president willing to sacrifice popularity at home – especially with the Ukrainian military, not to mention radical forces like Right Sector – for the sake of peace? Some say the move could be fatal for Kiev, but expert Taras Chornovil called it “an invitation to talk, not a capitulation.”

    It looks like the West took Baku’s démarche last week as another invitation to talk. After President Ilkham Aliyev said that Azerbaijan must be treated “as a friend and a partner” (otherwise it will find other allies), there has been no shortage of high-ranking Western visitors to Baku. This conga line of dialogue was kicked off by a US State Department delegation, which met with Aliyev to discuss energy cooperation and other strategic issues. The Americans were followed by European Union President Donald Tusk, who also sang the Azerbaijani leader’s praises. While Baku may be feeling like the belle of the ball at the moment, it’s not to its advantage to hold a long-term grudge, writes Sokhbet Mamedov in Nezavizimaya gazeta. After all, the EU is Azerbaijan’s largest trading partner. Baku is also hoping to get Western support in resolving the long-simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

    To demonstrate just how much holding grudges can set you back, Vedomosti compares and contrasts Iran and Russia. Since Russia is entering a confrontation with the West just as Iran is exiting it, “Iran’s most recent history is a lesson for Russia.” And what is that lesson? That while self-isolation may pay off in the short term, since it rallies the masses with the “besieged fortress” mentality, the overall costs are much too great. Iran suffered great financial and technological setbacks thanks to its standoff with the West. Is it really worth it for Russia to go down that same path?

    That is just one of the many difficult questions the world is faced with in the international arena, says Fyodor Lukyanov. Clearly, the old world order is crumbling before our very eyes – everywhere from the seemingly endless conflict in Ukraine to ISIS’s terrifying march through the Middle East. The days of the Congress of Vienna and the Helsinki Accords – the main building blocks of international relations – are long gone. The world needs to find a new mechanism to deal with conflict. Will necessity once again prove to be the mother of invention?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #29

    Letter From the Editors: July 13-19, 2015

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    Issue #29 Letter From the Editors
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    Right Sector Under the Gun. Russia Under Scrutiny. China Under Suspicion. Kazakhstan Under the Radar.

    A weekend gun battle between Right Sector fighters and police in western Ukraine underscored President Pyotr Poroshenko’s failure to rein in illegal armed groups in Ukraine. While the exact circumstances of the shootout are unclear, its significance for Poroshenko is not. He pulled his main political pillar in the east, Lugansk Province Governor Gennady Moskal, and put him in charge of Transcarpathia Province, where the shootout took place. Tatyana Ivzhenko quotes experts who say the move indicates where Poroshenko feels he needs the most political strength ahead of upcoming local elections.

    In a show of international political strength, Tehran and international negotiators this week reached a long-awaited deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Mikhail Zygar says the agreement marks the end of an era during which Russia had a valued and respected place among the world’s “board of directors.” Global trust in Moscow has plummeted since Russia annexed the Crimea. Russia is now a criminal pariah that other respectable nations will not associate themselves with, much less turn to for help resolving global problems. Putin’s land grab essentially torpedoed any chance at realizing the desire he expressed back in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference for Russia to be a respected pole in a multipolar world, the journalist writes.

    As if to reinforce Russia’s retreat from the civilized world, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that Russia’s Basic Law takes primacy over European Court of Human Rights rulings. Granted, many other European countries have taken similar stances, and the ECHR is not beyond reproach even in the West, but still – this does not earn Russia any points among its detractors.

    While Putin isn’t gaining points among the world community, he doesn’t seem to be losing them at home, even though he arguably should be, given the dismal economic outlook. The Russian president, still riding high on the “Crimea is Ours” wave of Russian patriotism, is seemingly immune to political backlash over the flagging economy, says Sergei Aleksashenko. The economist sees no signs of a recovery in the near future as the Russian government continues to inhibit growth. If Putin is losing points anywhere, it is among Russian soldiers. According to Aleksandr Golts, the Russian Army’s rank and file is demoralized and deserting because of poor treatment and lies about lucrative pay and prestige for volunteering to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.

    One thing Russians of almost every stripe are disenchanted about is China’s growing influence in Russia. The recently concluded SCO and BRICS summits in Ufa corresponded with the launch of new BRICS financial institutions that Yulia Latynina believes are designed merely to fund China’s rise. She says Moscow is willing to go along with that if it means Beijing will prop up the Putin regime. Apparently, Putin is willing to sell out state interests to protect his personal interests. But not everyone in the Russian political elite sees benefit in being a junior partner in organizations where China is calling the shots, says Aleksandr Knyazev. The NG columnist writes that the SCO’s development trajectory demonstrates that the organization is unwilling and unable to squarely shoulder pressing regional problems: It is too busy pursuing China’s Silk Road agenda and serving as China’s foreign trade ministry to be anything more than a nominal negotiation platform for discussing broader issues.

    As Russia looks eastward, it is largely overlooking Kazakhstan, a regional success story that Vladislav Inozemtsev believes has a lot to teach Russia about forming mutually beneficial international partnerships, instituting effective reforms and fostering sustainable economic development. Something tells me Putin won’t easily accept lessons from Astana.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #28

    Letter From the Editors: July 6-12, 2015

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    Issue #28 Letter From the Editors
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    Russia in Crisis Mode: The ‘Presumption of Trust’ and the Quest for Geopolitical Standing.

    The first feature of this week’s Current Digest focuses on a series of laws adopted during the Russian State Duma’s spring session. One of the more controversial of these gives the police expanded powers to use force, cordon off areas and use other measures to protect public order. These powers rest on the “presumption of trust” in law-enforcement officers to use their judgment to deal with unforeseen situations.

    Oleg Kashin comments that such legislative initiatives “would be appropriate only in a prerevolutionary situation” and “give off a very ominous impression amid today’s placid domestic situation.” Furthermore, he adds, the criteria for using force are so loosely defined that President Putin could at any moment turn the police against any of his obedient followers (such as State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin, who made the news this week by referring to Western leaders as “sad clowns”).

    Curiously, Ukraine seems to be moving in a similar direction when it comes to the “presumption of trust” in law enforcement. In the wake of the recent appointment of Valery Gritsak as head of the USS (a security veteran who seems to enjoy trust in many quarters, judging by praise from right-winger Dmitry Yarosh, Georgian-president-turned-Ukrainian-governor Mikhail Saakashvili, and others), word has it in Kiev that an array of bills are in the works to expand the special services’ powers in various arenas.

    Elsewhere in the CIS, Russia is hoping to win the trust of Tajikistan as it solicits the Central Asian republic’s accession to the budding Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow is even granting a measure of amnesty on some migration violations – mainly to Tajik students enrolled at Russian universities. But Dushanbe is holding out for more, such as a pledge from Russia to help build the Rogun Hydroelectric Station.

    On the global stage, Putin drew some attention this week by reaching out by phone to several European leaders, including Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (who subsequently called his main creditor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel). The Russian leader’s overtures are a bid for worldwide trust, argues Tatyana Stanovaya: They are part of “the global standoff in which Putin assigns himself the role of the great force of good, justice, spirituality and order.”

    In what could be seen as another manifestation of trying to win the trust of the world – or at least a major part of it – Russia hosted a dual BRICS/SCO summit in Ufa. Fittingly enough, it took place during the very days when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was hosting its Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Finland (an event to which six prominent members of the State Duma, among them Naryshkin, were excluded). The timing of this event supports Dmitry Trenin’s contention that having been spurned by the West, Russia is now trying to align itself with the “non-West.” However, Trenin cautions, in doing so Russia cannot be so presumptuous as to assume that the rest of these countries will rally around it to oppose the US and Europe. They all have their own interests, based on values that may be more different from Russia’s than Russia’s are from the West’s.

    At the same time, Russia cannot confine its own interests to the (geo)political. It has the more mundane issue of day-to-day survival to think about, too. Hence the development of economic ties with China, including the controversial possibility of leasing land to the PRC in Russia’s Far East (characterized by Yulia Latynina as “giving up Russian land and Russian sovereignty to pay for China’s support of the current regime”). In the interests of material well-being and political stability, can Moscow presume to trust Beijing?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #27

    Letter From the Editors: June 29-July 5, 2015

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    Issue #27 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #27 Table of Contents

    Speaker Naryshkin plays Nostradamus; the PGO travels back in time – and finds the Crimea

    This week’s central message seems to be: Every man (woman, country, politician) for himself! Friendships are collapsing, integration projects are crumbling, and no one seems willing to budge an inch. For instance, in what is becoming a series of scathing editorials, Russian Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin blasted the European Union for playing second fiddle to the US at the expense of its own interests. According to Naryshkin, Russian sanctions so far have cost the EU 2 million jobs and 100 billion euros. And apparently, politicians who are distancing themselves from the EU in favor of national interests are gaining popularity. So is the EU a failed project? To quote the speaker: “I am certain that unless this model changes, the EU is certain to collapse, and no reforms will save it.” So what’s a possible alternative? The Eurasian Economic Union, it would seem. Naryshkin touts that project as a beacon of democracy – “The goals of the EaEU are totally transparent; its rules are more democratic than those of the EU; and its institutions are directly guided by the will of the nations making up this union.”

    Perhaps the speaker is just upset that he won’t get to visit Finland this summer to attend an OSCE summit? After some hemming and hawing, Finnish officials decided against making an exception for Naryshkin, who is on the EU black list of Russian officials. According to Vedomosti, such a decision is unprecedented, since Russia has never missed an OSCE session before. In response, the rest of the Russian delegation also cancelled the visit. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the move “patently unfriendly, inconsistent with the principles of good-neighborliness and harmful to Finnish-Russian relations.”

    Compromise isn’t in the stars for Ukraine, either. Both Kiev and leaders of the breakaway republics are calling the Minsk agreements a failure. This is evidenced by Kiev working to streamline its domestic legislation to be fully prepared to receive Western military-technical assistance – for instance, peacekeepers. In response, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko accused Kiev of backpedaling on Minsk‑2, and announced that the DPR will hold its own regional elections in October (albeit in accordance with current Ukrainian law), writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. Both sides are appealing to Constitutional norms, but for Zakharchenko, that means granting the DPR special autonomous status on a permanent basis (not provisionally, as is currently the case), while for Kiev, restoring the Constitutional order means doing away with the DPR and LPR. Doesn’t sound like fertile ground for a compromise.

    The hits just keep on coming – this time courtesy of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office. Thanks to the proactive legal tenacity of certain Duma deputies, the PGO found that Khrushchev’s decision to hand over the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 was unconstitutional. On top of that, it is now checking into the legality of the decrees granting the Baltic states independence in the early 1990s. So what next? Legal experts say that such legal time travel is dangerous territory, since it brings up a slew of additional legal conundrums. For instance, wonders Yegor Kholmogorov, are the Baltic nations independent states that temporarily lost their sovereignty in 1940, or are they political entities that newly emerged from the former Soviet Union?

    Legally speaking, Russia does not have a leg to stand on. But when it comes to image, it has everything to lose with such a cavalier approach to history, Kholmogorov says. Since the West is already used to seeing Russia as an aggressor, does it really need to indulge those phobias further? Especially when it’s more than just politics that are taking a hit. Take, for instance, the fact that Western companies are exiting the Russian oil and gas sector in droves, writes Vladimir Milov. This week, France’s Total announced it was pulling out of projects in Russia. Two American companies – Conoco and Chevron – left the Russian market years earlier. Now that confrontation has a very real price tag, will Russian politicians finally come to their dollars and senses?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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