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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #8

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 22-28, 2016

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    Issue #8 Letter From the Editors
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    Matters of Consideration.

    Could the most devastating armed conflict in recent memory soon be over? A ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US, if actually implemented, could be the beginning of the end of the five-year civil war in Syria. The plan hashed out by Moscow and Washington gives the numerous opposition factions fighting in Syria the opportunity to join the truce, suspending fighting with government forces. At the same time, it allows for the continued bombing of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Vladimir Frolov calls the ceasefire a gambit motivated by Russian geopolitical considerations.

    Unfortunately, not all tragedies have a resolution in sight. Questions still linger one year after prominent Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered near the Moscow Kremlin. Investigators have traced the assassination back to a group of thugs for hire who are formally part of a Moscow-based Chechen security force. What role each member of the group played in the killing is unclear. Is that due to a lack of hard evidence, or are political considerations a motivating factor?

    The same question could be asked about the arrest of Dmitry Kamenshchik, owner of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, who has been booked on charges of maintaining a lax security environment at the airport, which contributed to the loss of life in a 2011 terrorist attack at the airport. Peter Hobson of The Moscow Times believes the successful businessman is being prosecuted for refusing to sell his business to Kremlin insiders.

    The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Russian courts arbitrarily applied the law when trying Aleksei Navalny and Pyotr Ofitserov for what the ECHR called “acts that are indistinguishable from regular commercial activities.” While the ECHR didn’t rule on the political motivations in this case, its decision clearly alludes to them.

    The Russian Finance Ministry sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev a letter outlining its dissatisfaction with a recently approved anticrisis plan. The ministry says the government’s plan does not have the funding needed for implementation. Is the ministry’s dissension purely over figures, or are other considerations at play?

    The French and German foreign ministers paid a visit to Kiev to discuss reforms and the prospects for elections in the Donetsk Basin region. The discussions only highlighted the fact that Kiev and the separatists have irreconcilable stances on this and other considerations associated with the settlement of the conflict. Meanwhile, according to a recent survey, Ukrainians are growing increasingly discontented with their political leaders. Early elections are looking more and more likely as political infighting threatens to completely dissolve previously forged parliamentary coalitions.

    Despite promises to favorably consider Russian T‑90 tanks when filling defense procurement contracts, Tehran has signaled that it does not need them and is instead developing its own tanks. The move reinforces the opinion of some commentators that Russia’s motivations for brokering the Iran nuclear deal have not necessarily been satisfied.

    State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin accused the US of holding Russia to double standards and fomenting “brazen and deceitful Russophobic hysteria” in an article published in Rossiiskaya gazeta. He says that instead of making an enemy of Russia, the West should consider joining forces with it to deal with the real dangers that threaten universal values.

    This week’s final matter of consideration: energy. Yury Shafranik, chairman of the Union of Oil and Gas Producers of Russia, ties the deterioration of relations with the US to energy issues. He says technological breakthroughs have lessened Western dependence on Russian hydrocarbon resources, thus diminishing the value of the Russian-US partnership. That is because, historically, relations between the two countries have been founded on energy considerations.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #7

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 15-21, 2016

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    Issue #7 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #7 Table of Contents

    A Big Week in Munich: Supporting Players Take Center Stage

    This week marked a relatively rare appearance by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the international arena, standing in at the annual Munich Security Conference for the far more attention-getting international “bad boy” Vladimir Putin. (Last year, Putin also sent a substitute to Munich – Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – who had the thankless task of answering for Moscow’s recent aggressive actions in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.) This time around, in the wake of the first three months of the Russian military operation in Syria, Medvedev could speak from a position of (relative) strength: He called upon the West to join Russia in its fight against global terrorism. “If we do not normalize the situation in Syria and other hot spots, then terrorism will become a new kind of war in which the whole world will become embroiled.*** Terrorism is a civilizational problem.”

    This open invitation to collaboration drew praise from Yevgeny Shestakov, who commented in Rossiiskaya gazeta that Medvedev’s speech marked a “watershed” in Moscow’s relations with Europe. However, Shestakov expressed skepticism that a “shuttered” Europe, immersed in its own narrow interests, was ready for such collaboration. (Curiously, he gave credit to a figure seldom mentioned in our Digest pages – Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite – for leading an anti-Russian contingent that is “calling the shots” in the EU.) Meanwhile, Vladimir Frolov claimed that in making his magnanimous gesture, Medvedev was insisting on a “parallel reality” in which Russia has lived for many years: “The message of Medvedev’s Munich speech is simple.*** Let’s pretend that nothing dramatic happened between Russia and the West in 2014-2015***and lift all reciprocal sanctions. However***Russia will not change anything in its policy, let alone correct anything.”

    Pavel Felgengauer makes a similar observation about Moscow’s brand of cooperation in the International Syria Support Group, which convened in Munich just before the security conference. This was the moment for another Russian supporting player to shine – Sergei Lavrov, who just a year before was practically laughed off the Munich stage. This time, the Russian foreign minister came off as a hero, helping to hammer out an agreement that calls for a ceasefire and eventual political settlement in Syria. Here is Felgengauer’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal: “Lavrov in Munich brilliantly played the center position, wrapping Kerry around his finger and signing a nonbinding document that can be interpreted any way you please.” Indeed, it apparently pleased Syrian President Bashar Assad so much to see this cooperation between Washington and Moscow that he announced his intention to fight the opposition to the end, taking back all the territory that his regime has lost during the four-plus years of the country’s bitter civil war. In short, Assad is not going anywhere.

    Nor, it seems, is Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk – another supporting player who (along with the aforementioned Medvedev) made it to the short list of “biggest losers” in last week’s letter from the editors. Just when it seemed that Yatsenyuk’s political career was gasping for its last breath – President Pyotr Poroshenko was calling for his resignation, and his National Front party was lagging with a dismal 1% approval rating in Ukrainian opinion polls – something highly improbable happened. Mere minutes after a majority in the Supreme Rada assessed the Ukrainian government’s work as unsatisfactory, dozens of deputies suddenly disappeared, making it impossible for the legislative body to declare a no-confidence vote, which would have unseated the entire cabinet, Yatsenyuk included. Call it what you will – a conspiracy (as Yulia Timoshenko did) or an “oligarchic coup” (as Samopomoshch party leader Andrei Sadovoi did) – but clearly Kiev politics will keep Ukraine and the rest of the world guessing for quite some time.

    With unexpected developments like this, we wonder: What supporting players will take the stage next?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #6

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 8-14, 2016

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    Issue #6 Letter From the Editors
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    Biggest Losers of the Week: Yatsenyuk, Medvedev and Kolokoltsev Battle It Out for the Title

    In the game of life – and big politics – there will always be winners and losers. But why should the former get all the attention? Take Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, for instance. He is the undeniable star of Ukraine’s latest political crisis. “Ukrainians consider the current cabinet headed by Arseny Yatsenyuk the worst government in the history of independent Ukraine,” writes Izvestia. His approval rating is at a “laughably low” 1%. And this despite the fact that Yatsenyuk’s National Front came in second in the 2014 parliamentary elections!

    The Supreme Rada has one week to decide what to do with this “political corpse” – that’s when Yatsenyuk will present a report in the Rada on the government’s work since December 2014. Following that, the deputies will have to decide whether to keep him around for another year, or kick him to the curb (along with the cabinet, which is just as unpopular).

    But not everything is as simple as it seems. For now, Yatsenyuk is drawing the people’s ire for declining living standards, continued government corruption and a lack of progress on privatization. But what happens if he is dismissed? According to Vitaly Portnikov, the other ruling coalition parties “will end up in a worst-case scenario: They will be held fully responsible for all of the executive branch’s further actions.” Meanwhile, given how quickly former economic development and trade minister Abromavicius went from zero to hero in the voters’ eyes following his resignation, Yatsenyuk could still rebuild his tarnished reputation just in time for early parliamentary elections. So the biggest loser of Ukrainian politics may have the last laugh yet.

    Will his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev be so lucky? Medvedev is tasked with getting United Russia into the Duma in the upcoming elections. Given the party’s declining popularity, it promises to be an uphill battle. What’s more, Medvedev gets to take the heat from the left – the Communists and A Just Russia – for a declining economic situation. And this time, United Russia is “headed by Medvedev, not Putin. All their criticisms will target the prime minister, while Putin will remain above the fray during a crisis,” writes commentator Tatyana Stanovaya.

    As if that weren’t enough, PM Medvedev got to be Russia’s envoy to the Munich Security Conference. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was basically laughed off the stage as he attempted to toe the official line and justify Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. This year, the atmosphere isn’t much cozier (let’s just say Sen. John McCain is one of the participants). But Medvedev is seen as “the West’s Russian sweetheart,” writes The Moscow Times. And his mission is to seek the end of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Even the Kremlin realizes this will not be an easy task: According to political analyst Mark Galeotti, “were the Russians expecting a diplomatic triumph, Putin likely would have gone.”

    The final biggest loser of the week is trying to keep a handle on things back home. Dubbed “the worst internal affairs minister in Russia’s entire post-Soviet history” by Oleg Kashin, Vladimir Kolokoltsev gets called to task for letting the Chechen branch of the ministry he supposedly oversees run rampant in the Russian capital. According to Kashin, the people who “get involved in the vilest criminal affairs report to Vladimir Kolokoltsev.” The murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov is just one instance that comes to mind. And no matter how Kolokoltsev may rationalize that terrifying trend, the fact is he no longer controls his subordinates. The tail is wagging the dog.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #5

    Letter From the Editors: Feb. 1-7, 2016

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    Issue #5 Letter From the Editors
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    Russia, West Stuck in Vicious Cycle.

    Relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate as the list of mutual grievances expands and the number of seemingly insurmountable impasses grows. That is the general consensus of the Russian commentators cited in this week’s sampling of the Russian press. The most contentious issue continues to be Russia’s annexation of the Crimea – the European Parliament reiterated that it constituted a flagrant violation of international law. Dashing hopes that the West was preparing to soften its stance on Russia, European parliamentarians passed a resolution linking the lifting of sanctions against Russia to Moscow’s return of the Crimea to Ukraine. The Kremlin almost certainly has no intentions of ever giving back the peninsula.

    The Crimean issue aside, fundamental disagreements remain regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Kiev and the separatists don’t see eye to eye on just about every major point of the Minsk agreements. Nezavisimaya gazeta writes that as the linchpin in the settlement process, Russia could do a lot more to resolve the conflict: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The question is, does Russia have the will?” But even if the Ukraine conflict were resolved tomorrow, Russian-Western ties would still be far from normalized. They have effectively been poisoned for years to come, says Vladislav Inozemtsev. He offers a laundry list of sticking points, ranging from Ukraine to Syria, each of which will require tremendous effort and political will to overcome. In particular, he says that Vladimir Putin’s attempts to influence the EU’s political landscape have made him a personal enemy of many European leaders.

    As if to underscore that assessment, the BBC recently released a film, “Putin’s Secret Riches,” that accuses the Russian leader of involvement in rampant corruption and enrichment schemes. When asked to comment on the allegations made in the film, US White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the US has been aware of them for years. Russian Foreign Affairs Council head Andrei Kortunov says that the US has “crossed a red line” in relations with Russia. And Fyodor Lukyanov says that the charges give the Kremlin grounds to accuse the West of seeking regime change in Russia, since the accusations follow the modus operandi the West has used to foment regime change in other countries. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov all but said as much when in response to the accusations he suggested that the West was preparing to interfere in upcoming Russian elections.

    The deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, the anti-Russian sanctions and the anti-American narrative in Russia have affected the way Russians think, says Levada Center director Lev Gudkov. According to him, the propaganda in Russia today “exploits [Russians’] inferiority complex and loss of certainty about the future.” He says that the anti-Western campaign has discredited the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the eyes of Russians. As a result, they are increasingly turning to Soviet-era views and institutions.

    Unfortunately, it seems that an entire generation of Russians is developing a certain view of their country, of its place in the world and of the West. And the same is true of the West, where a generation is developing a certain view of Russia. At the moment, the numerous complications between Russia and the West seem intractable. What can end the vicious cycle and will the conditions ever be met for a complete normalization of relations?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #4

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 25-31, 2016

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    Issue #4 Letter From the Editors
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    You Can’t Play a Game on an Empty Field: Putin’s Domestic and Foreign Quandaries

    Late last year, Yekaterina Shulman described Russia as a “hybrid autocracy” (in the same category as Turkey, by the way) – a country that has multiple political parties, holds elections on a regular basis, and claims to have an independent judiciary and law-enforcement system, but in reality all major decisions come from the top executive level. Aleksandr Kynev’s analysis of changes that took place in Russia in 2015 seems to confirm this idea:  “The executive branch continues to gain more and more power, increasing the institutional disparity with other branches.*** We continue to observe the overall institutional weakening of political parties and nongovernmental organizations.”

    This week’s news from the domestic front is replete with examples. Nikolai Epple analyzes the intentionally problematic definition of “political activity” as outlined in the Law on Nonprofit Organizations (it seems that even apolitical activities like science, medicine and art can become “political” if their practitioners engage in any kind of teamwork). Meanwhile, according to media reports, the Russian authorities are planning to shell out hundreds of rubles to implement an “anticrisis plan,” including up to 340 billion “to keep a lid on social discontent.”

    While the overall context of these repressive measures is an economic crisis, prompted largely by a steep drop in oil prices, the obvious goal (says Kynev) is “to clear the political field of any independent players, making sure no new players emerge and existing ones don’t get stronger.”

    Given President Vladimir’s Putin uncontested power in the domestic arena, his “field-clearing” efforts have been largely successful. However, his attempts to accomplish something similar in Syria – to clear the country of political opposition factions that want to oust perennial leader Bashar Assad – have been both thwarted and criticized by other players on all sides. For example, according to political analyst Aleksei Malashenko, Moscow’s continuing alliance with Tehran to fight ISIS has stained its reputation in the eyes of much of the Muslim world: After all, Iran is a Shiite power, ISIS is a Sunni organization (albeit an extremist one) and most Middle East governments are led by Sunnis. In this context, a visit to Moscow from Qatari Emir Tamim al‑Thani came as something of a surprise: Why would a Sunni leader suddenly want to talk to Putin? One likely reason, according to commentator Orkhan Dzhemal, is to gain Russia’s support in countering Saudi Arabia, a powerful force that is not only backing “undesirable” factions of the Syrian opposition, but is also tanking oil prices (a big headache for Russia that may also be spurring some of the desperate “anticrisis measures” mentioned above). Dzhemal sums up: “Russia has apparently managed to secure an important ally at the most crucial moment ‑ one that is willing to stick it to the Saudis.”

    It seems that Russia needs all the allies it can get right now. In an NG opinion article, Georgian politician Tedo Dzhaparidze expresses frustration about Moscow’s apparent attitude of “Whoever is not with us is against us,” as well as its uncompromising support of breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even worse, Ukraine has decided to make regaining the Crimea a priority, taking the matter to international courts. Even Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, historically a Putin stalwart, has recently made comments on expanding cooperation with Britain and resisting Russia’s economic pressure on Ukraine.

    In 2015, for the third year in a row, Forbes rated Putin as the world’s most powerful person. But even Vladimir Vladimirovich cannot tilt the global playing field steeply enough to clear it of all his opponents. Besides, even if he could, what would be the point of playing the game?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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