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

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 7-13, 2015

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    When Putin Looks in the Mirror, He Sees Erdogan; Can Russian Truckers Bring Down the Regime?

    Friendships in big politics are about as fickle as they are in high school. Case in point – former best friends Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trade between the two countries was booming, and Russian tourists flocked to Turkish resorts every year. What’s more, according to Konstantin von Eggert, Putin and Erdogan also have very similar personalities. But then Nov. 24 happened, when the Turkish side downed a Russian jet for allegedly violating its airspace. And paradoxically, Putin’s and Erdogan’s similar personalities have become the biggest stumbling block in resolving the matter.

    How are the two presidents similar? Both are paternalistic and rely on the average voter as their main support base; both “dislike intellectuals, journalists and the urban middle class”; and both have undertaken ambitious military reforms. In fact, if the confrontation between Putin and Erdogan moves into the military arena, it may effectively end Moscow’s operations in Syria: Turkey controls access to the Bosporus Strait, which is used to bring supplies to the Russian grouping in Syria. In fact, Turkey may already have an excuse for such a drastic move, now that Russia’s “political clown” Vladimir Zhirinovsky has called for a nuclear attack on Turkey.

    According to Zhirinovsky, “For the past 90 years, since the time of Lenin, Russia has supported Turkey. This has been a historical mistake.” However, Moscow and Ankara may limit themselves to tough rhetoric and produce bans, since an actual all-out war between the two countries is not what the average voter wants. And just like Putin, Erdogan considers himself a man of the people.

    Of course, when it comes to the “average Joe” back home, Putin may have a serious problem on his hands: Truckers protesting new highway fees have become a major thorn in the authorities’ side. This is bad news for Putin, writes Novaya gazeta, since the Russian president’s authority is propped up by two whales – the “spoon-fed oligarchy” and the everyman voters. Now, the former is coming into conflict with the latter, since the tariffs were rolled out by long-time Putin crony Arkady Rotenberg (and are now colloquially referred to as the “Rotenberg tax”). So could it be that the regime’s undoing will be the work of the “common man” – rather than a “fifth column” of pro-Western intellectuals, as Kremlin propaganda would have us believe?

    According to political émigré Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Kremlin could indeed have a revolution on its hands. Khodorkovsky believes that the recent wave of political controversies is living proof that the people’s patience is wearing thin. The latest scandal involves the Russian Prosecutor General’s links to the ruthless Tsapok gang – forever etched in the public’s mind after the brutal murders in the village of Kushchevskaya. The investigation, carried out by Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Fund, took the public by storm and went viral on YouTube, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. And the authorities, who usually pretend Navalny doesn’t exist, were forced to comment on the allegations. Of course, PG Yury Chaika still has his job and has blamed the entire scandal on Hermitage Capital head Bill Browder. So don’t expect things to change overnight, says The Moscow Times.

    Finally, another political standoff is heating up in Ukraine: Firebrand Odessa Province Governor Mikhail Saakashvili continued his assault on the Arseny Yatsenyuk government for aiding and abetting corruption. Many experts believe that Saakashvili’s anticorruption grandstanding was timed to coincide with US Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine, because Saakashvili hopes to be appointed Poroshenko’s right-hand man. Given that Saakashvili is currently more popular than the president himself, that tactic may very well pay off.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2015

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    Putin’s Message to the Federal Assembly: Rhetoric vs. Reality.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin used all the “right” words in his annual Message to the Federal Assembly when talking about Russia’s foreign and domestic policies. But how well does his rhetoric measure up to reality?

    Putin struck a largely conciliatory tone when discussing international relations, but he nevertheless lashed out at Turkey for shooting down a Russian bomber flying a combat mission in Syria. The president’s harsh words for Turkey come after the announcement of a series of punitive measures that include sanctions on Turkish goods and workers entering Russia and on Russian tourists traveling to Turkey (ostensibly to ensure “the national security and protection of Russian citizens from criminal actions”), as well as a decision to halt cooperation with Turkey on the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline project. Even though Putin contends that, with respect to Turkey, Russia’s “actions will be governed, first and foremost, by our responsibility to our nation and our people,” Sergei Aleksashenko says that Russia’s sanctions will actually hurt Russia more than Turkey.

    Despite what Putin said in his address about enhancing Russia’s cooperation with international partners, Russian lawmakers seem eager to free Russia from the requirements of international laws, the very foundation of global relations. Recently passed legislation would give Russia’s Constitutional Court the power to decide if Russia must abide by the rulings of international courts. Also contrary to Putin’s rhetoric regarding greater engagement with other countries was his curt, off-topic speech at an international climate conference in Paris that, according to Tatyana Stanovaya, demonstrated just how much Russia has lost its edge in diplomatic maneuvering amid the recent geopolitical storms involving Russia and the West.

    Yekaterina Kuznetsova says that Russia lacks true allies, and she attributes this to Moscow’s persistent resentment of its perceived mistreatment by other nations. “Our actions on the global arena are reminiscent of the actions of an old man who shuns young people who have a worldview to which he is unaccustomed and do not recognize his unquestionable supremacy,” she writes. She says Russia is unable to function as part of an international coalition because it always sees itself as the “center of the world, not a rank-and-file member of a coalition.” In her opinion, instead of real allies, Russia has a series of imaginary ones that she says will cost it more dearly to retain on the future.

    Although some experts were surprised by Putin’s unusually frank assessment of the dire condition of Russia’s economy, his rhetoric regarding business, and entrepreneurship in his Message also fell short of reality. In his Message, Putin said that greater trust must be built between the government and businesses, that more freedom should be granted to entrepreneurs, and that the government should listen to the people, and treat civil society and the business community as equal partners. However, some in Russia are instead seeing the growth of government at the expense of private businesses, entrepreneurs and civil society. Yekaterina Shulman comments that “the solution to every problem seems to be to create yet another government agency, with new officials and new powers.” The creeping bureaucratic overreach has not gone unnoticed by Russia’s long-haul truckers, who went on strike after a levy was imposed on them for every kilometer they travel.

    Putin’s latest Message to the Federal Assembly seemingly underscores the disconnect between rhetoric and reality that is par for the course in any political system anywhere in the world. But does that have to keep us from wondering whether Putin might ever become an exception to the rule, and that his enormous popular support and extensive executive powers might someday enable him to match noble words with noble actions?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 23-29, 2015

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    Russia, Turkey and the Crimea: A Troublesome Week in the Neighborhood

    In Aleksandr Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman,” the poet imagines Peter the Great standing on the barren Baltic shores and deciding to build a city there “to spite the haughty neighbor” (Sweden). Leonid Radzikhovsky uses this phrase to characterize the spirit of post-Soviet Russia’s foreign policy – except that in the modern era, the “haughty neighbor” is all of Western Europe, as well as the US. Radzikhovsky makes the (perhaps surprising) suggestion that Russia drop its traditional rhetoric and use the common enemy of ISIS to build new cooperation with the West. Just as St. Petersburg became a “window to Europe,” ISIS has paradoxically opened a “window of opportunity” for long-standing rivals to reconcile.

    State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin is having none of it. He writes in Rossiiskaya gazeta that by renewing sanctions against Russia (introduced last year after Moscow annexed the Crimea), the West itself is killing the spirit of cooperation that was just getting under way. It’s not all Europe’s fault, in Naryshkin’s view: The EU is merely being too obedient to the US. As Russia approaches the 20-year mark as a member of PACE, the Duma speaker writes: “We think that 20 years . . . is long enough for our partners to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in one big house with us, or depend on the winds blowing from across the Atlantic as before.”

    The winds from the Mediterranean have arguably been much harsher this week, as Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian bomber over a Syrian border area. One crew member was killed as he descended by parachute. Here are the two sides of the story: Ankara claims that the plane violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, and that this sortie was only the latest incident where Russia had bombed Syrian Turkoman settlements (whose residents are a Turkic people under Ankara’s protection). Moscow, on the other hand, says that its bombers never crossed the Turkish border and that the attack was revenge for Russia’s prior bombing of trucks that were transporting oil purchased by Turkey from ISIS.

    “Of course, this was not about how many minutes or seconds that Russian aircraft had violated Turkish airspace,” writes Vitaly Portnikov. He argues that this conflict was bound to happen sooner or later, since Russia’s campaign in Syria is aiding a Shiite coalition fighting against Sunnis, thus threatening Turkey’s status as a leader of the Sunni world.

    Curiously, speculates Portnikov, Russia’s ongoing conflicts with Turkey and Ukraine could end up bringing the latter two countries closer together. In a similar vein, Pavel Kazarin claims that Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine (not just in the Donetsk Basin, but in the economic arenas of trade wars, gas prices, etc.) have done Kiev a service by pushing it out of the orbit of post-Soviet countries whose delicate economies are dependent on Russia.

    Speaking of which, the newest member of the Russian Federation was literally left in the dark as protesters in the Crimea blew up four pylon supports for high-voltage lines that transport electricity from southern Ukraine to the peninsula. According to an anonymous former official in the Ukrainian government, there are plans to build an “energy bridge” from Russia to the Crimea in 2016 – but in the meantime, the damage has been done and a statement (of sorts) has been made. As in the proverbial “nose spiting the face” scenario, it looks like the Crimea is getting the worst of this standoff between two “haughty neighbors.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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