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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #46

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 14-20, 2016



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    A Week of Bewilderment, Befuddlement, Bemusement.


    Nothing can be taken for granted these days, it seems. Not after Brexit and Trump. The world is still processing – reeling over – Donald’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election. Experts are nervously contemplating the consequences of what appears to be a nascent era of populist backlash against establishment political figures, attitudes and institutions – and perhaps even more broadly, modernity. Whatever new era might be dawning, it will certainly be one of political and general uncertainty.


    Russia is not immune to surprising developments, it turns out. The biggest head-scratcher to come out of Russia this week was the middle-of-the-night arrest of Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was allegedly caught accepting a bribe from Rosneft for giving a “positive assessment that allowed Rosneft to purchase a controlling stake in Bashneft.” There are many eyebrow-raising elements to the case, writes Yulia Latynina. For example, the “bribe” allegedly occurred long after the deal to purchase the Bashneft stake was finalized; the wealthy cabinet minister was supposedly demanding the relatively paltry sum of $2 million in a multibillion-dollar deal; and Putin apparently was aware of the impending sting operation long before it happened, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Ulyukayev’s boss, only learned of the impending arrest the day before. The list of baffling aspects of the arrest goes on. Although not calling the charges patently false or a provocation (as Ulyukayev claims they are), many commentators nevertheless call the arrest politically significant, if not politically motivated.


    Andrei Kolesnikov says the arrest sends a wake-up call to the elite ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The Stalinesque arrest of a top government official is sure to inspire the “loyalty of fear,” as Eva Hartog and Mikhail Fishman put it. The arrest also bolsters Putin’s image as a corruption crusader, and reeling in a big fish before the 2018 election cycle will definitely score him some points with voters, even though such a high-level corruption scandal will tarnish Russia’s reputation in general. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that Putin’s electoral platforms are always nothing more than slogans (such as fighting corruption) that serve to boost ratings but don’t become part of an overall strategy. With Putin, everything is ad hoc. So could Ulyukayev’s arrest be a shoot-from-the-hip solution to a political issue?


    The other sensational story to come out of Russia this week is that the Russian Supreme Court overturned the sentence of avowed Putin oppositionist and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny in a 2013 embezzlement case. The decision enables him to run for elected office again. The unexpected decision was cause for celebration and suspicion. Some suspect that the Kremlin may actually need its bitter foe to run for president, to give Putin a credible opponent in the election. Others suggest that the Kremlin might be seeking to co-opt him.


    The fact is that Putin is entering what is presumably his last presidential election cycle. This has the Russian elite on edge and preparing for Russia without Putin. What awaits the elite amid the surging tide of populism and antiestablishment sentiment? Should Putin himself be worried about the upcoming election? After all, you can’t get much more establishment than the current Russian regime, right? But perhaps Putin doesn’t have much reason to be afraid. As Yury Saprykin writes somewhat facetiously, Putin turned out to be ahead of the political curve. Trump essentially used the same spin techniques to win the US election that Putin has been using for years in Russia: unsubstantiated statements, fake news and provocative clickbait. Restoring lost “greatness” is in vogue these days, and Putin is becoming something of a cult figure in the eyes of America’s alt-right and Europe’s far-right. Hopefully past greatness doesn’t mean the 1930s for Russia and more late-night arrests.

     


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #45

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 7-13, 2016



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    The Shock Felt Round the World: The Trump Victory and Its Reverberations.


    America is definitely the main focus of this week’s news from Russia. In our first feature, Russian commentators give their takes on how Donald Trump achieved his surprising presidential win and what it means for US democracy. Andrei Movchan argues that the sector that won Trump the election was neither the rich nor the poor, but the middle class, led by the small and medium-sized business sector. One observation shared by all of the commentators: The upset of Hillary Clinton, who represents a political dynasty, proved that democracy really does exist in America (although all of the writers acknowledge that Trump’s victory was narrow and that the Electoral College in a few swing states put him over the top).


    Dmitry Oreshkin writes in Novaya gazeta that Trump’s win is part of a “global backlash” exemplified by Brexit, European nationalism and the continuing popularity of Putin in Russia. However, making an implicit contrast with the latter, he concludes: “America has one distinct advantage – it isn’t afraid of making mistakes, since it always has a way of rectifying them through fair elections.”


    Speaking of Russia, how is Trump’s victory likely to affect it? Belying the sanguine tone of the analysts above, Mikhail Fishman writes: “The US political system has failed at its core. The bulwark of liberal democracy is sinking.” He acknowledges that this turn of events is good for Putin (who might “start seeing himself as the first among equals on the global scene”), but laments that it’s bad for Russia: “The hope for change in Russia has just been buried in the voting booths of Florida, Michigan and North Carolina.” Oleg Kashin riffs sarcastically on much the same theme, pointing out similarities between the conservative heartlands of America and Russia (he even uses the term “rednecks” to describe both!). The lesson he draws from Trump’s victory over the liberal Clinton is that the “creative class” – the progressive intellectuals who are numerically in the minority, in both countries – must find a way to connect with the “redneck” majority. He ends on a hopeful note: “The Americans***will likely solve [this problem], and we will look to them and solve it here, too.”


    Coincidentally (or not?), Russia’s most notorious former political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has just published a mission statement for his Open Russia organization that does not take any overt cues from America. In fact, the plan strictly depends on Russia’s domestic trajectory: Specifically, it assumes that the Putin regime will inevitably fall (sooner or later) and that Putin’s successor (no matter who) will fail to move the country forward. This impasse will set the stage for reforms, focused entirely on the domestic scene: a stronger parliament, independent courts and a demonopolized economy, to name a few.


    As for the international scene, Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, makes his own predictions in a Rossiiskaya gazeta interview: “The world today is standing on the threshold of changing from a unipolar to a multipolar world order.*** And this clash between the two geopolitical projects is also evident in US society, which clearly manifested itself during the presidential election campaign.” In other words, Trump’s victory means the US will step back from global military dominance (a stance that Ivashov sees as represented by the Hillary Clinton establishment).

    However, says military analyst Aleksandr Kanshin in an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Trump’s victory will not prompt an “immediate U-turn” in US military policy. Will Trump disband NATO, given his strident criticism of the alliance during his campaign? Hard to say, Kanshin responds. “One can only hope that Russian-US relations would finally improve, including when it comes to global security issues.” Paradoxically, from a Russian standpoint, America’s electoral shakeup could make the world more stable. Stranger things have happened.


    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2016



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    To the Brink: From the Return of Checkpoint Charlie, to the Point of No Return in Russian-US Relations


    In an article dedicated to the current sad state of Russian-US relations, Dmitry Yevstafyev outlines four layers that comprise a healthy bilateral relationship: political contacts, diplomatic communication, interaction within the format of global institutions and, finally, unofficial contacts between former political “heavyweights” (think Robert McNamara and Yevgeny Primakov). Right now, all four links in the chain are broken. And while Yevstafyev blames “Twitter diplomacy” for ruining the age-old art of expert negotiators hammering out solutions away from the prying eyes of social media, it seems the author most laments the overall loss of our ability to communicate. Even in the 1970s, cold war confrontation proceeded along clearly established ground rules. The current situation is more reminiscent of the 1950s, “when Soviet and US tanks faced off near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and various scenarios for delivering preventive nuclear strikes were discussed.”


    In fact, with the threat of nuclear war looming larger than ever, the UN First Committee has approved a measure to ban nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t look like the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals are about to step back from the brink. Addressing a lack of trust between Russia and the US, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev laid the blame squarely at Washington’s door: “We cannot help but wonder what sort of categories Washington thinks in by placing Russia on a par with ISIS and the Ebola virus in its National Security Strategy.”


    Yet according to Aleksandr Golts, Moscow is hardly interested in coming to terms with Washington on nuclear weapons, since its nuclear arsenal remains the Kremlin’s main foreign policy tool. Whether it’s designing next-generation nuclear subs or leaking the allegedly “secret” Status‑6 nuclear weapon (as it did last year), Moscow is leaning heavily on one of the few tools left at its disposal. And just in case anyone thinks this is a bluff, Vladimir Putin has been hard at work dismantling “his earlier reputation as a rational man by constantly hinting that if push comes to shove, he is prepared to ‘press the button.’ ” Of course, using nuclear weapons to achieve superpower status instead lands Russia in the same camp as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But, as Golts warns, “When Kim Jong Un blackmails his neighbors with a few [nuclear] warheads, the result could be a regional catastrophe. Moscow’s nuclear blackmail could destroy the entire planet.”


    Could it be that Russian leaders are finally starting to come to their senses? First, during last week’s meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin clearly struck a conciliatory tone, stating that Russia has no intention of attacking anyone. Then, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that if controversial new antiterrorism legislation and the Law on Foreign Agents are being perceived so negatively by the public, then “for us, the government, that is a serious shortcoming.” Are these signs of a thaw? Hardly, believes political analyst Nikolai Petrov. “Instead of offering something positive, you first scare people with a bigger negative. . . . Then you dial back the negative, which makes them happy – not because you gave them anything, but because you took away less,” he explains.


    One big negative in the CIS this week is the Ukrainian public’s reaction to the asset declarations filed by Ukrainian officials. While the average Ukrainian is struggling to pay for groceries and other basic items, the powers that be are rolling in unprecedented luxury. Some of the items declared include: a church; a “ticket to space” worth $1.5 billion; as well as “collections of paintings, carpets, diamonds, antiques, yachts and airplanes, dozens of apartments and hundreds of hectares of land.” The public’s patience is clearly wearing thin, and “bitter sarcasm among the public could turn to aggression,” warns political expert Andrei Zolotaryov. So that ticket to space might come in handy after all.


    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 24-30, 2016



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    Is the End of the Globalization Era in Sight?


    The past two weeks have been marked by a series of meetings about practical policy matters and their broader philosophical implications. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria met in Moscow to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. The ministers reiterated the need for a political solution to the conflict and emphasized that the US and its coalition allies must convince the moderate opposition to dissociate itself from terrorists like Jabhat al‑Nusra. They also gave the US heat for preventing further intra-Syrian peace talks in Geneva.


    It is Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko who has been catching heat at home since last week’s meeting of the “Normandy Four” leaders in Berlin. Patience is wearing thin over the Minsk agreements, which a growing number of critics in Ukraine are saying should be abandoned. Poroshenko pushed back, asserting that the agreements are the only path to peace, but he also rejected the notion of giving up the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The next chapter in the Ukraine saga will be a road map for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements that the “Normandy Four” foreign ministers are to have ready by the end of November.


    Leading policy experts from around the world met in Sochi this week for the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. This year’s topic was about shaping the world’s future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks at the meeting were both defensive and cautiously optimistic. He issued his usual criticisms of the West for blaming Russia for all that is wrong in the world and using double standards. Commentator Andrei Akulov offers a laundry list of the accumulated grievances in Russian-US relations, which Putin hopes will improve under a new US president. Putin adopted a particularly strident tone as he rejected the “imaginary, mythical threats” about the Russian “barbarians”: “Russia has no intention to attack anyone. That is ridiculous. It is simply preposterous, foolish and unrealistic.” Putin repeated what has been his main foreign policy dogma throughout his leadership tenure: Russia wants to see a multipolar world where every country is equally respected and no country can “reshape the world order to suit its own interests,” which he intimated the US has been doing ever since the end of the cold war.


    Fyodor Lukyanov writes that the world is growing disillusioned with the universalistic message of globalization. Its promised benefits are failing to materialize, or are doing so in ways that many did not predict, leading to imbalances in the world political system and public sentiment. Lukyanov says that dissatisfaction with the economic and political status quo has turned into “global disorder”: the fragmentation of interests and objectives instead of their universalization.


    In addition to Ukraine and Syria, another symptom of that “global disorder” is the current US presidential campaign, where outspoken Republican candidate Donald Trump is breaking nearly every political convention, seemingly without losing any political capital. His populist message of drastic, reactionary approaches to hot-button issues like terrorism and immigration appeals to base fears about those issues and taps into the growing strain of disillusionment with globalization’s gospel of universalism. Lukyanov suggests that modern institutions founded on ideas of global governance built on consensus have failed to adequately address such fears – at least in the minds of many citizens. And so the task of existing global institutions, Lukyanov argues, is to prevent centrifugal and polarizing forces from creating more division and conflict on national and international levels. But he is not optimistic: “The scale of problems facing the world offers no hope that solutions will be found in the foreseeable future.”


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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