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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #38

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 19-25, 2016



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    Issue #38 Letter From the Editors
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    Questioning/Unquestioning Loyalty: A Gaggle of Alliances, Coalitions and Parties


    The most dramatic news story in this week’s Digest highlights the issue of loyalty. Barely a week after the US and Russia had (seemingly) established trust and brokered a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, US warplanes struck Syrian Army troops near Deir al‑Zour. American military officials quickly said the pilots had made a mistake, but Moscow even more quickly accused Washington of breaking the truce. Looking beyond this incident, the larger question of loyalty becomes even more complicated. For example, part of the American end of the ceasefire agreement was to prevent terrorist groups – specifically Jabhat al-Nusra – from infiltrating the ranks of rebel groups loyal to Washington. And yet, as Aleksandr Shumilin writes, the rebels themselves have been reluctant to disown Nusra: The group is considered the most effective opposition force, and it has burnished its image by cutting ties with Al Qaeda. One more ingredient in the mix is Turkey. Vladimir Mukhin reports that even while US-Russian cooperation on Syria was in full swing, Ankara’s Operation Euphrates Shield started getting more support from US special forces and US-led coalition aircraft. In fact, Mukhin blames pro-Turkish forces for breaking the ceasefire in Aleppo (in this case by attacking rebels, not Syrian troops).


    At virtually the same time as the precariously stitched together Geneva agreements were coming undone, United Russia was sewing up a victory in the State Duma elections. A preparatory move that had looked like democratization – i.e., doing away with party lists for single-seat districts, so that the Duma mandate would go to whatever candidate wins the most votes – played to the ruling party’s advantage: It won 90% of seats representing these districts. Now it holds a “supermajority” of 343 seats (75%) – well over the 67% required to make changes to the Russian Constitution. But does this mean that ordinary Russians are more loyal to the regime than they were in 2011, when tens of thousands protested on Bolotnaya Square? Not so, says political analyst Aleksandr Kynev: It’s just that the protest voters sat this election out, believing they couldn’t make a difference. Whether through loyalty or apathy, the voting results consolidate power firmly in the hands of the party that happens to include President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev.


    Another consolidation is rumored to be afoot in the Russian security and law-enforcement sector: The Kremlin might be planning to recreate the KGB in the form of a “state security ministry.” Who will lead it? According to Pavel Chikov, after the recent wave of high-profile arrests of law-enforcement officials, the “last man standing” is Russian Investigation Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin: “The concept of a Russian FBI, completely tailor-made for Aleksandr Bastrykin, could quite easily materialize . . . to handle the most significant categories of crimes against the federal government.” On the other hand, an anonymous source quoted by Kommersant questions the Kremlin’s loyalty to the longtime security boss: The authorities have supposedly “let him know that in the new system, he can expect only an honorary position with no managerial powers.”


    Just west of Russia, another longtime loyalty is being called into question: Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko abruptly spoke out against the Eurasian Economic Union, of which he had been a staunch advocate for years. Evidently miffed by the Russian government’s intractability on gas prices, Lukashenko exploded at a recent meeting: “I’m sick of this – enough is enough. This can’t go on any longer.” Curiously, in a Rossiiskaya gazeta interview just last week, Lukashenko emphasized unity with Russia as a fraternal nation. “Russians feel very much at home here [in Belarus], even better than that.” Perhaps he would agree with the classic distinction made by Mark Twain: “Loyalty to the nation all the time; loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #37

    Letter From the Editors:Sept. 12-18, 2016



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    Truth Is Stranger Than Reality TV – Who Will Be the ‘Survivor’ of Geopolitics? 


    The wildly successful US reality television series “Survivor” is currently in its 33rd season. While this makes it a veteran in the world of television, that is hardly a record for the world of politics. In fact, the Digest has seen more than its fair share of reality TV drama unfold on its pages. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all.


    This week is no exception. Two tribes appearing to work together, at least as an ad hoc alliance, are Russia and the US, which seem to have reached a tentative deal on Syria. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, refused to release the text of the actual agreement, saying it contains very sensitive information, writes Vedomosti. They did, however, outline the general idea: An initial cessation of hostilities for 48 hours, “with an extension of another 48 hours, leading to permanent compliance with this truce,” Lavrov said at a joint press conference following the talks. The cessation of hostilities should hold for seven days. Then, a special center would be set up in Syria “to delineate terrorists from the moderate opposition.” The Russian Aerospace Forces and the US Air Force are planning to work in tandem to target terrorists in certain regions (while the Syrian Air Force would stay out of those areas).


    Experts are skeptical that the ceasefire will hold. The biggest issue is that it would be very difficult to distinguish the moderate Syrian opposition from terrorists. Moreover, the Syrian opposition views the agreement as a betrayal by Washington. Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, the deal makes Russia the winner. Not so, argues Carnegie Moscow Center’s Aleksei Malashenko: “Moscow made several significant concessions in the talks: Assad’s fate is not reflected in the documents, but he is prohibited to fly in [parts of] his own territory – this is a clear signal that his legitimacy is being undermined.” Clearly, lack of trust remains a huge stumbling block.


    Another part of the world swept by political turmoil and asset redistribution is Uzbekistan. After the death of perennial leader Islam Karimov on Sept. 2, acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has emerged as a major player trying to get control over Uzbekistan’s juiciest assets, writes Radio Liberty’s Umid Bobomatov. The acting head of state’s relatives control such cash cows as “foreign trade operations, bank transfers, textile production, the oil and gas sector,” and so on. Now, Mirziyoyev is gunning for assets belonging to the deceased president’s family. According to the Fergana news agency, the government is already looking for evidence of wrongdoing at a company belonging to Karimov’s son-in-law, Timur Tillyayev. An agency source claims that the company will eventually end up in the hands of Mirziyoyev’s sons-in-law.


    Meanwhile, no one is more adept at the reality TV world of politics than Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. In an interview with Rossiiskaya gazeta, Lukashenko talked at length about how he has managed to survive “in the middle of it all.” Being at the crossroads of Eurasian geopolitical games (or the “hammer” that is Russia and the “anvil” that is the EU, as he put it), maintaining a fragile balance is tricky. “So we should not be despised for talking with the West and we should not be pushed away from Russia. We were fated to be in the center, at this crossroads, [and] this is where we have to live,” Lukashenko said. The Minsk negotiating process on finding a resolution to the Ukraine conflict has certainly put Belarus at the center of the world’s attention. Now that the spotlight is on him, can Lukashenko outwit, outplay and outlast?


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #36

    Letter From the Editors:Sept. 5-11, 2016



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    Continental Drift


    Do you ever get the feeling, to quote Kipling, that “we’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding”? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the seas of misunderstanding separating the “island nations” of the world have grown choppier of late and that those islands are drifting further apart – perhaps giving new, geopolitical meaning to the term “continental drift.”


    This week, the Group of 20 convened in China in what was essentially a forum for political grandstanding rather than a venue for hashing out global economic issues, according to Fyodor Lukyanov. More fascinating than the G-20 agenda itself were the bilateral and multilateral meetings on the summit sidelines that did and did not take place. Unlike the G-20 meeting two years ago, when Vladimir Putin was derided and publicly ostracized, the summit in Hangzhou featured Putin in a more positive role. The Russian president held talks with several world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Theresa May. But the meetings were not without incident or frostiness. May either forgot about or blew off the traditional handshake and photo op prior to their meeting. Was this a misunderstanding, as the Russian side portrayed it, or a deliberate snub, as some British commentators suggest? And Putin’s conversation with Barack Obama (candid, blunt and businesslike, according to Obama) also seemed to be misunderstood by the two sides. Putin left the meeting believing that the only thing left to do was resolve some technical issues with regard to Syria, while Obama said that there was still a “gap of trust” separating the US and Russia. That gap will likely widen further after Russia and China hold joint naval drills next week in some of the most hotly contested waters – the South China Sea.


    Another gap – also formed by mistrust and misunderstanding – is the chasm separating the sides to the Ukraine conflict. The Ukrainian government continues to maintain that Russia is an aggressor. Moscow denies this allegation, and asserts that the fighters in the region are disgruntled Ukrainian citizens of Russian descent who have taken up arms they happened to come across and learned to use. The other misunderstanding concerns the purpose and goal of the Minsk agreements. While Kiev believes they are designed to gradually dismantle the self-proclaimed people’s republics, the separatist leaders believe they are designed to legitimize their existence. This sea of misunderstanding continues to grow more boisterous.


    Perhaps the area where geopolitical “continental drift” has been most evident is the former Soviet Union. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the formal dissolution of that country. While the countries that were formed after the USSR’s collapse initially sought to maintain close economic, political and military ties, centrifugal forces and those wretched waves of misunderstanding eventually pushed them further apart, writes Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin. He claims that the West viewed the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States as a new beast rising from the ashes of a vanquished monster (I’m admittedly infusing my paraphrase with a generous dose of hyperbole) and treated it with suspicion, if not contempt – refusing to give it the respect and support that it needed and deserved. But if anything, the CIS prevented what could have been a more violent dissolution of the USSR and helped the fledgling republics – now nations – establish their statehood. The death last week of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s architect of statehood, creates an intricate game around that country, writes Gevorg Mirzayan – one that restarts the geopolitical games that accompanied the CIS’s formation 25 years ago.


    Perhaps I’m an idealist, but maybe if the nations start shouting something other than “subjective versions of reality” (I won’t go so far as to say lies), the seas of misunderstanding will subside and the nations will stop drifting apart.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #35

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2016



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    ‘Let Me Jump in Your Game!’ Newcomers Jump Into This Week’s News From Russia


    No, the expression “jump in your game” was not coined by Jim Morrison, but newcomers seem to be opening doors to fresh opportunities, according to recent Russian media coverage. For example, Nezavisimaya gazeta makes much of the fact that the foreign ministers of Germany and France invited their Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, to join their conversation about settling the eastern Ukraine conflict. Using its leverage in Eastern Europe, Poland could potentially break the stalemate in the Donetsk Basin by persuading the OSCE to send in peacekeepers. NG quotes political commentator Vitaly Kulik: “Neither the disengagement of the sides nor a full ceasefire is possible. I am here, and I can see what is happening with my own eyes. There will be no peace until armed . . . well-trained police under the auspices of the OSCE enter the region.”


    Elsewhere in the CIS, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has suffered a stroke. The longtime dictator has either died or is still recovering in the hospital (depending on which sources you trust). Either way, someone new will need to jump in to take his place. Some analysts speculate that Karimov’s successor might get Uzbekistan back in the game of post-Soviet solidarity by rejoining the CSTO – or perhaps even joining the Eurasian Union.


    Another player who seems to crave a more active role in Eurasia is Japan, as evidenced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent overtures to Putin. Of course, writes the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitry Trenin, Abe wants to persuade Russia to hand over the Southern Kurile Islands to Japan (an issue that has troubled relations for 60 years) while he is still prime minister. However, according to Vladimir Frolov, time is on Russia’s side. Putin’s diplomatic plan is as follows, he writes: “Let’s take our time with negotiations (the very fact that we’re talking is good for us, we’re in no rush, the situation isn’t hopeless). . . . During these lengthy negotiations, Moscow and Tokyo should establish a relationship of special trust, evidenced by solidarity and mutual support on key global and regional issues.”


    Speaking of support, what about the “bad boy” who suddenly jumped in the game of US politics? For over a year now, the American media have been giving maverick Donald Trump all sorts of free publicity – and the Russian media have followed suit in recent months, especially since President Putin called him a “striking” (yarky – sometimes mistranslated as “brilliant”) politician. With Trump dropping in the polls (at least, this week!), some Russian commentators predict that his rival Hillary Clinton will win the presidency – and that her victory will make life more difficult for Russia. Rushing to Trump’s defense, Aleksandr Vedrussov writes in Izvestia that the billionaire newcomer is the target of a “mudslinging campaign” waged by megacorporations: “The global corporatocracy went to a lot of trouble setting the Middle East ablaze, orchestrating a coup in Ukraine and driving a wedge between Russia and the EU – it is not about to allow Trump and Putin to . . . make ensuring global peace and security a priority in international relations. You can’t cash in on peace and stability. But war – whether regional or global – is and always has been the best source of income for the global capitalists.”


    Yulia Latynina also emphasizes the affinity between Putin and Trump, but in a sarcastic vein (surprise surprise!), commenting that the countries Russia considers enemies – i.e., those in the West – are “predictable and rational,” whereas “we are friends with unpredictable and irrational countries that are run by the erratic will of just one person. By the way, this is exactly why the Kremlin would feel more at ease with Donald Trump as US president.” As Frolov cautions: Be careful what you wish for.


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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