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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #3

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 18-24, 2016

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    Issue #3 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #3 Table of Contents

    Drawing Lines in the Sand: Why Geopolitics is Hardly a Walk on the Beach

    This week, almost all of the players on the geopolitical stage seem to be drawing lines in the sand. No longer straddling the fence, many are either abandoning old loyalties or demonstrating determination to stay the course.

    In the former Eastern Bloc, the EU’s newest members seem to be abandoning Western liberal democracies they embraced with the fall of Communism in favor of what political analyst Fareed Zakaria has called “illiberal democracy.” From Hungary’s Viktor Orban government to Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party, which just swept the parliamentary elections, the east is turning antiliberal. Why are these countries suddenly turning their backs on Europe after such apparently successful integration? According to Mikhail Karpov, “The newly emerged petit bourgeoisie class and farmers integrated into Europe with palpable economic, as well as cultural and psychological costs. But they kept quiet for the time being.”

    So has Eastern Europe drawn a line in the sand and, in the words of new Polish PM Beata Szydlo, said no to Western European “cyclists and vegetarians”?

    In a reverse trend, Iran is instead erasing a line in the sand and moving to integrate into the global economy. With the end of sanctions, Tehran is poised to become a regional power and major player on the global energy market, writes Vladimir Korovkin. Calling Iran “the world’s largest forgotten economy,” Korovkin predicts that it could become a real “industrial tiger” and even “transform the economic outlook for the entire region.” This is due to Iran’s well-balanced economy, strong consumer and industrial markets, and highly skilled labor force.

    Will Moscow, which stood by Iran during its isolation, reap any benefits from Tehran’s foray into the global markets? Only if it plays its cards right. “In order to develop close economic ties, initiative must come first and foremost from Russian private companies,” Korovkin concludes.

    Unlike Iran, the Kremlin seems to be digging in its heels. The Russian leadership has always emphasized the country’s uniqueness, which should be reflected in its development path. Many experts see this as an excuse to avoid much-needed systemic reforms. Given the current crippling economic crisis, the authorities must take some immediate steps. Economist Sergei Aleksashenko says in an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta: “Economic measures won’t change the situation fundamentally. What Russia needs is political reforms, political competition, independent courts.” That has not been the case, he adds. Instead, the Kremlin is waiting for oil prices to bounce back.

    Meanwhile, Moscow has stepped up its anti-Western démarches: First, the Russian Foreign Ministry decried London’s ruling in the death of former FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. The British authorities found Litvinenko’s former colleagues Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi complicit in his death. Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called it an attempt “to tarnish Russia, its official representatives and leadership.”  

    Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov decided to jump on the righteous rage bandwagon along with Zakharova, defending his earlier remarks calling the Russian nonestablishment opposition “traitors.” In an open letter published in Izvestia, Kadyrov stuck to his guns and railed against Western “jackals” who are seeking to destroy Russia. According to Yulia Latynina, Kadyrov is seeking to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin as the budget pie shrinks. Latynina adds that Kadyrov may also be eyeing the role of Putin’s successor. Loyalty can be fickle. And lines in the sand can be washed away in a flash when the tide turns.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-2

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-17, 2016

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    Issue #1-2 Letter From the Editors
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    Putin Seeks to Burnish Russia’s Image in Foreign Media, but Will His Messaging on Ukrainian, Syrian Crises Alter International Community’s Perception of Russia?

    Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his recent spate of media appearances by giving an interview to the German newspaper Bild. Common to this and his other messages to primarily foreign audiences is the Russian leader’s desire to clear the air with the West. In the Bild interview, he offers historical validation for annexing the Crimea and suggests that the West should change its attitude toward Russia, allowing it to pursue its own interests. However, Russia’s own recently revised National Security Strategy is quite anti-Western, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta, creating the perception that Russia is unwilling to change its attitude toward the West. It remains to be seen whether Putin will attend the Munich Security conference, but if he does, he had better be prepared to bring constructive ideas to the table regarding cooperation with the West, Vladimir Frolov writes.

    Commentator Yevgeny Gontmakher believes that a small window of opportunity for normalizing Russian-Western relations may be opening. He writes that many of the mistakes made during the immediate post-Soviet years concerning Russia’s European integration could be rectified if Russia is offered a special approach to European integration.

    However, a major sticking point in any normalization of Russian-Western relations is the status of the Donetsk Basin and the Minsk agreements for a ceasefire in the region. The contact group for Donetsk Basin settlement is meeting for the first time this year with a new Russian representative, Boris Gryzlov, who held a late-night meeting with Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenoko during a hasty visit to Kiev. The meeting raised eyebrows and hackles among some Ukrainian politicians, who complain that the president is discussing the future of the Donetsk Basin with Moscow behind their backs. Poroshenko, in an effort to put such fears to rest, reiterated that his administration is determined to get the Crimea back from Russia and said that the only acceptable political settlement in the Donetsk Basin is one that results in the complete restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over occupied territories. Time will tell whether future meetings of the contact group will yield new hope for a settlement, and whether any agreements reached during these meetings will bring Russia and the West any closer together.

    Sergei Karaganov argues that despite the souring of relations with the West, 2015 was one of the best years for Russia’s foreign policy. He writes that Russia asserted its interests and made other nations more respectful of them and that it imposed new rules of the game on the West through its tough, principled stance. Karaganov even claims that, “on the whole, the Ukrainian conflict was a political victory for Russia”: It showed the weakness of the European security system and Europe’s institutions. He also believes that Russia’s Syria plans are working “beautifully” and that its antiterrorist operations in Syria are taking the edge off of the confrontation with the West. However, despite Karaganov’s positive assessment of Russia’s Syria operation, Vladimir Frolov maintains that Russia has actually tarnished its image in the Middle East by not remaining neutral in the growing Sunni-Shia divide.

    Whatever 2016 may bring, one thing is certain: It will yield more than a few differences in opinion regarding the many security challenges around the globe, as well as differences in attitude among the various players addressing those challenges.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #51-52

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 14-31, 2015

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    Issue #51-52 Letter From the Editors
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    Out With Ukraine, In With Syria: Recalling 2015 and Contemplating 2016

    “Should old Crimea be forgot and Donbass fade from mind, / Let’s all remember Syria and revere me for all time.” No, Vladimir Putin did not sing this twisted version of “Auld Lang Syne” at his annual press conference, but it seems to have been a subtext. According to news coverage of the event, his most memorable remark on Ukraine was an uncomplimentary statement about former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili (now governor of Odessa Province); and the emotional high of the three-hour conference came when Putin waxed eloquent

    This emphasis reflects a major trend in Moscow’s foreign policy that has taken shape in 2015: Ukraine is out, Syria is in. In a blatant demonstration of the former, Putin issued a decree that puts an end to the free trade relations between Russia and Ukraine as of Jan. 1. As for the latter, although the Russian president has been full of bravado about fighting ISIS, former ambassador Michael McFaul writes in the Moscow Times that Russia must fulfill certain conditions before the West will consider it a real partner in the war on terrorism; first and foremost, it must stop bombing the Syrian opposition. In a related article, seasoned political analyst Georgy Mirsky cautions that there are actually five wars raging in Syria, including one between the government and the opposition, and another between different factions of jihadists. Mirsky adds that despite the good intentions behind a newly minted UN resolution for settlement in Syria, the US’s allies in the Arab world will not let it launch an all-out campaign against ISIS: After all, although extremists, they are Sunni Muslims, like the vast majority of people in the Arab world.

    Of course, the press conference focused more on domestic issues than foreign policy. In this regard, Yury Saprykin observed that Putin was not in top form as he usually is at such events, where he confidently rattles off optimistic economic figures. Instead, the president neglected details, like the complacent CEO of a successful business. “This is exactly how Putin feels today: He gets his adrenaline rush from geopolitical confrontation, from locking horns with ‘our Western partners’ – and as for everything else, who cares?” This cynical attitude seems to have been confirmed when reporters asked about this year’s economic situation. Putin’s initial response (according to Izvestia) was to tell a joke with the punchline: “I thought [last year was bad], but now I see that last year was great, and it’s this year that really sucks.”

    So, what does 2016 hold in store? Tatyana Stanovaya published a piece in Slon.ru this week that lists what she calls the coming year’s five intrigi, a multipurpose word in Russian that in this context means suspenseful situations with uncertain outcomes (we chose to translate it as “cliff-hangers”). The last “cliff-hanger” is geopolitical – will the West lift sanctions against Russia? – but the first four all have to do with domestic policy: (1) Will structural reforms take place, such as privatization and more incentives for small business? (2) Will liberal officials return to power, like former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin? (3) Will the upcoming Duma elections be at all competitive? (4) Will the average Russian’s pent-up anger over depreciating salaries and rising prices launch a new wave of protests?

    Stanovaya’s answer to the first three: Don’t hold your breath – Russia’s conservative political system will continue to run as usual. But as for the fourth, she observes a growth in popular discontent, as well as global instability. “This year could bring a lot of things that haven’t happened in decades.*** And who knows, we could be on the threshold of a new era.” If so, then at the close of next year, Vladimir Putin really might be longing for “auld lang syne.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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