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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #22

    Letter From the Editors: May 30-June 5, 2016

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    Issue #22 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #22 Table of Contents

    Conspiracy Cocktail Turns Toxic.

    It is apparently rather difficult to look at what is going on in Eastern Europe these days without entertaining a conspiracy theory – at least that’s the impression one gets from perusing the Russian papers. This week, Russian commentators offered up all sorts of interrelated conspiracy theories that combine to create a heady cocktail that has become both intoxicating and quite toxic. The main ingredient is the hot-button issue of Ukraine, which is currently still buzzing over the release of war hero Nadezhda Savchenko. The chatter in the Russian press has been about the details of her exchange and what Vladimir Putin hopes to gain from what seems like an obvious defeat. Yevgeny Kiselyov believes that the Russian leader bowed to pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and plans to compensate for the loss by stirring up more trouble in Ukraine.

    Meanwhile, Kiselyov senses political battles brewing over Savchenko as she begins her new role as a politician and potential government detractor in the Supreme Rada. To ward off the threat, a member of the Ukrainian president’s party faction released very timely and damning evidence of political corruption involving high-level politicians, including those from Batkivshchina, Savchenko’s party. Rounding out the Ukraine conspiracy theories is an article by Sergei Zhiltsov accusing the West of pitting Ukraine against Russia and of protracting the Donetsk Basin conflict to pursue its own agenda.

    What is that agenda? Russia’s NATO representative Aleksandr Grushko has a few theories – namely, that the alliance is using the Ukraine conflict as a pretext to prove its “indispensability” and get its members to boost military spending. He believes that NATO has no interest in a positive agenda with Russia based on political dialogue and an equal footing.

    Another ingredient in the conspiracy cocktail is the Turkey-Russia-EU angst triangle. Anna Glazova writes that Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is increasingly consolidating power and rolling back democracy in his country, alarming many West European countries. Ankara is using the migrant crisis as a bargaining tool. It had agreed to accept migrants fleeing Syria in exchange for 6 billion euros, as well as a visa-free regime with the EU and a fast-tracked EU accession process. But now, that agreement is on the rocks after the German Bundestag recognized the Armenian genocide. Maksim Artemyev writes that the EU’s relations with Turkey are starting to resemble its relations with Russia. Does this mean that Turkey and Russia will go buddy-buddy against the EU? Not likely, since tensions are still simmering between Moscow and Ankara over the downing of a Russian bomber in Syria.

    The EU’s Russia sanctions are yet another ingredient in the conspiracy cocktail. Vladimir Frolov says the sanctions are likely to stick around (Western leaders have in fact said as much at a recent Group of Seven summit), since they are tied to progress on the Minsk agreements. Currently there has been none, at least on Russia’s end – the end the EU seems to care about. The real question, the analyst writes, is how these sanctions will eventually be lifted: all at once or gradually?

    Making the EU more wary of lifting the sanctions any time soon are Putin’s blatant threats toward Romania and Poland over their hosting of elements of a US missile defense system. He more or less said that citizens in those countries will now know what it is like to be “in the crosshairs,” since Russia will have to target the US missile system in order to guarantee its own security. Has he been drinking too many conspiracy cocktails lately? Maybe we are all a bit tipsy.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #21

    Letter From the Editors: May 23-29, 2016

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    Issue #21 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #21 Table of Contents

    From Prison to Privatization: A Nod to the Power of Individuals

    Amid the usual news of the rich and mighty bargaining and posturing their way into the spotlight, we cannot help feeling inspired by this week’s news, which holds a few testaments to the power of “ordinary” individuals – those without the benefits of wealth, birth or political position. Leading the list is Ukrainian servicewoman Nadezhda Savchenko, who was released from Russian custody May 25 to return to her home country amid great fanfare. Savchenko had dazzled the global media off and on for over a year with her tenacious resistance to a seemingly implacable Russian justice system. Velimir Razuvayev, writing in Nezavisimaya gazeta, reports a curious role played in Savchenko’s release by two other “ordinary” individuals – Marianna Voloshina and Yekaterina Kornelyuk, loved ones of the Russian journalists whom Savchenko was accused of killing in 2014. These women apparently went against the assumptions rampant in their country’s media, pleading on the Ukrainian’s behalf when she herself refused to do so. Now, predict Moscow Times reporters Ola Cichowlas and Oliver Carroll, Savchenko will become an unprecedented voice of criticism for Ukrainian President Poroshenko: “Savchenko will not be afraid to speak her mind. There will be few excuses. . . not to implement difficult reform and few reasons not to upset the oligarchic balance.”

    Meanwhile, we should not underestimate the power of Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, the Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainian Army in the Donetsk Basin, who were released in exchange for Savchenko. Granted, these soldiers are “unremarkable men,” as reporters Maria Zheleznova and Andrei Sinitsyn acknowledge – “But this doesn’t alter the significance of what has happened. . . [T]he soldiers’ exchange de facto means Russia acknowledges its involvement in the [eastern Ukraine] conflict.” Thus, the two former servicemen may even (indirectly) lend the Ukrainian government credibility as it requests assistance from NATO to counter future Russian aggression.

    Meanwhile, in Central Asia, we are seeing a rare instance of individuals putting pressure on an authoritarian regime. For weeks, protest rallies have been held in various cities in Kazakhstan to fight proposed amendments to the country’s Land Code that would extend leases to foreign (read: Chinese) tenants from 10 to 25 years. Earlier this month, perennial leader Nursultan Nazarbayev had pledged tough reprisals; nevertheless, the protests continued. Political analyst Arkady Dubnov describes Nazarbayev’s unexpected response: “[T]he president himself proposed a compromise in hopes of preempting [further rallies]: He imposed a moratorium on the introduction of the controversial amendments until Jan. 1, 2017, and issued a decree creating a Land Commission to discuss possible revisions to the Land Code amendments.”

    Kazakhstan’s land lease plan is just one attempt to stave off economic woes brought on by falling commodity prices. Russia is in the same boat, so to speak, and President Vladimir Putin is also looking for solutions. He seems to have acknowledged the importance of individuals in crafting them, as evidenced by the fact that his Economic Council convened at the Kremlin for the first time in quite a while. The group is composed of a motley crew of present and former political leaders, as well as Russian businesspeople. This kick-off meeting, described by spokesman Dmitry Peskov as a “brainstorming session,” took place behind closed doors, so analysts had little basis for comment – only speculation. Will this array of personalities be able to set a course for growth and reform in the notoriously stagnant economy of the world’s largest country? As we look at the impact made by other individuals in Current Digest No. 21, let’s not rule it out. At least, not this week.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #20

    Letter From the Editors: May 16-22, 2016

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    Issue #20 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #20 Table of Contents

    Turf wars that bind: From a drug tsar’s downfall to a cemetery brawl

    “Russian security [clans are] in many ways like a snake biting its own tail, sodden in corruption and racketeering,” writes Mikhail Fishman, deftly summing up this week’s running theme – turf wars. The latest spat within the elite erupted on an unusual platform: Facebook. Sergei Ivanov, the now-former head of the recently disbanded Federal Narcotics Control Service, took to social media to express his disappointment over learning that his agency is no more. “I want to apologize that I couldn’t save our organization. We protected our national interests honestly,” he wrote. Fishman points out that Ivanov, a close Putin associate from the Russian president’s St. Petersburg inner circle, broke the cardinal rule of Putin loyalism – never air your dirty laundry in public. Apparently, Ivanov failed to learn the lesson of his predecessor Viktor Cherkesov, who fell from Russia’s political Olympus for similar reasons.

    Having replaced the disgraced Cherkesov back in the day, you’d think Ivanov would have taken note. But now, his agency has been absorbed by the Kremlin’s latest security services venture – the National Guard, headed by Viktor Zolotov.

    Zolotov will have his work cut out for him, however. According to Tatyana Stanovaya, the detective investigating the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov sent Zolotov a memo back when the latter was the chief of Russia’s Internal Troops. In it, the investigator states in no uncertain terms that Zolotov’s subordinates (i.e., Chechen Internal Troops officers) are “concealing evidence regarding their involvement in the high-profile murder.” Stanovaya goes on to say that the brazen behavior of Chechen law enforcement – under the protection of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, naturally – ruffled some very serious feathers in the FSB. It’s not often that the FSB leaks information to the media – especially the opposition media, like Novaya gazeta. Several revelations that newspaper published back in March that came from FSB leaks were particularly sensational: “What does Gen. Viktor Zolotov, formerly deputy chief of the Federal Protection Service and commander of the Internal Troops, know about this case? . . . Why did the FPS fail to provide detectives with CCTV footage from the numerous surveillance cameras installed all over Red Square and on the walls of the Kremlin, forcing the investigators to rely on the only video shot by a Center TV camera?” the newspaper wrote, basically conveying the indignation of its anonymous sources in the FSB.

    While some experts claimed that the creation of the National Guard was actually intended to curb Kadyrov’s influence, the opposite is actually true, writes Stanovaya. Why? Because Kadyrov and Zolotov are really good friends. So it seems the FSB has lost this battle.

    The perennial loser of various political turf wars – the nonestablishment Russian opposition – failed to secure a coalition in the run-up to parliamentary elections in September. Just when it looked like the Democratic Coalition (made up of Navalny’s Anticorruption Fund, Kasyanov’s People’s Freedom Party, and Civil Initiative, among others) might make it out of the gate, it succumbed to more infighting as it came under increasing pressure from the regime. The main problem, according to Ivan Davydov, was that “coalition members, in a bid to play an election game with the authorities, ignored the main participant in this game: the voter.”

    The ultimate turf war was demonstrated in very colorful terms this week when a brawl broke out between migrant laborers and local gangs at Moscow’s Khovanskoye cemetery. As Oleg Kashin puts it, the confrontation came to define the term “nothing sacred,” and may be a sign of things to come in Russia: Instead of phantom fifth columns orchestrating revolutions through foreign financing (a possibility the authorities are constantly fighting in their Quixotic quest), the real face of the Russian civil war may just be a gravedigger armed with a shovel facing off with a gun-toting gangster.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #18-19

    Letter From the Editors: May 2-15, 2016

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    Issue #18-19 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #18-19 Table of Contents

    Missile Matchup, Troop Buildup, Media Shakeup, Propaganda Pick-Me-Up, Putin Wake-Up

    The news in this issue of the Digest is full of “ups” more deservedly considered “downs.” Most depressing are the hypothetical Russian and US strike/counterstrike scenarios being bandied about that are eerily reminiscent of the doomsday scenarios of the cold war era. On May 12, the US Aegis Ashore missile defense system based in Romania came under NATO control, further ratcheting up tension between Moscow and the alliance. The US maintains that the systems are not directed against Russia, while Moscow insists that they are a threat that must be mitigated. Boris Sokolov contends that the US’s missile defense systems in Romania and Poland would be unable to counter Russia’s thermonuclear arsenal, and therefore represent only a marginal threat to Russia. Vladimir Mukhin, however, takes a more skeptical view, saying that the missile systems could be converted to deliver offensive missile strikes against strategic locations in western and central Russia. At any rate, Moscow is not going to let these new US missile systems stand unchallenged and has said it will target the countries hosting them.

    Adding to the controversy, Russia’s Defense Ministry has announced plans to create two new military divisions on its southern and eastern borders to counter NATO’s recently announced plans to build up troops in Eastern Europe. The move reinforces NATO leaders’ general mistrust of Russia. For example, Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander for the US Armed Forces’ European Command, commented that “Russia has not accepted the hand of partnership but has chosen a path of belligerence.” That assessment is not unanimously supported in the West, however. Pat Buchanan, a former White House adviser to the Nixon and Ford administrations, offers this stinging indictment of that opinion: “Did we not ourselves slap aside the hand of Russian friendship, when proffered, when we chose to embrace our unipolar moment, to play the great game of empire and seek benevolent global hegemony? If there is a second cold war, did Russia really start it?”

    Russian State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin, a longtime critic of the US’s “global hegemonic agenda,” published an article lambasting PACE for pursuing policies that he says only alienate Russia. He says that Russia’s “decision to suspend contact with PACE this year proved correct. There is no point in entering a crumbling building from which the spirit of democracy, the values of dialogue and the sense of responsibility to European nations are evaporating.”

    Analyst Vasily Gatov is also concerned by the evaporation of values and the spirit of democracy, but in Russia. He laments a trend in the Russian media to “channel a ‘besieged fortress’ mindset, and represent a jingoistic and socially conservative tribe that negates any kind of ‘foreign values.’ ” In his view, the press “has been forced to adopt [Vladimir Putin’s] agenda. It is an agenda that considers Russia more important than Russians, the state superior to citizens and power better than freedom.”

    Putin’s agenda, writes Mikhail Komin, is to cultivate Russia’s empire mentality through a series of illusory images designed to show that Russia is getting up off its knees. To maintain this illusion, Komin says that Putin needs to continually come up with new victories that his media propaganda machine can feed as an opiate to the Russian people, as well as the Russian elite – the people Putin is really wary of, according to Tatyana Stanovaya. She believes that Putin fears losing power – not in a popular revolution, but as a result of unrest among supposed loyalists who are really just opportunists, willing to abandon him when the time and circumstances are right. Are the conspiracy theorists right that what goes up must come down?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #17

    Letter From the Editors: April 25-May 1, 2016

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    Issue #17 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #17 Table of Contents

    Liberals in Russia: An Endangered Species in Need of Conservation?

    An American reading contemporary Russian political commentary might well be baffled by the uses of the word liberal. It’s an exact transliteration of the word we all know in English, and yet Moscow’s media coverage often links it to notions like private capital, free markets, nonintervention of government in business operations, etc. – values that we would define as conservative, which (as every good American knows) is the opposite of liberal. And Russia’s only major political party that contains the word – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia – is led by nationalist grandstander Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who (from an American point of view) is about as liberal as Donald Trump.

    Despite this apparent contradiction in terms, most of the world still understands liberalism in the sense that thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill did: Government should protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the governed, particularly the rights to earn wages, own property, and espouse and express their own ideas. Many Russians see these ideals as being very far from the repressive trend that the Putin government has followed in recent years; in fact, Filipp Styorkin even ascribes to the Moscow authorities the contention that “nothing has ever been more insufferable for . . . human society than freedom” (quoting Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor). In light of this perception, there has been a lot of excitement in opposition circles about the reappearance of former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin. Granted, he is not back in political office, but he has been appointed to the Center for Strategic Planning to draft reforms for the Russian government. Meanwhile, current cabinet member Aleksei Ulyukayev (described by Slon’s Tatyana Stanovaya as “one of the most timid economic development ministers ever”) came out with a bold statement in Vedomosti about making Russian businesses more attractive for investment, including by reducing government intervention in free enterprise. The spirit of “liberal reform” is definitely in the air – but, asks Stanovaya, does the government really want such suggestions? Or is it simply angling for a new political platform as a new election season gets under way?

    A look at the latest development in civil society oversight seems to support the second theory. The vacancy left by Ella Pamfilova as ombudsman for human rights is being filled by State Duma Deputy Tatyana Moskalkova, a high-ranking general in the Internal Affairs Ministry known for supporting the most notorious legislative acts in recent memory, including the Law on Foreign Agents, the ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans, and the Law on Offending Religious Sensibilities (inspired by a 2012 appearance in a certain church by a certain punk group performing a certain song offending a certain high-ranking Russian citizen). As journalist Maria Zheleznova sums it up: “Appointing Moskalkova . . . reduces the role of an ombudsman to that of a police officer protecting the state from the individual, not the other way around.” She goes on to conclude that the Russian authorities “are done flirting with the liberals.” (In this case, Zheleznova is using the word in a sense more familiar to Americans: i.e., liberalism as the promotion of individualistic values such as the freedom of speech.)

    One thing that liberals of all stripes seem to agree on is that terrorism is a bad thing. However, the label of terrorism can itself be used as a tool for repression. Legal advocate Pavel Chikov commented on a recent decision by the Crimean Supreme Court to ban the Tatar Majlis on charges of extremist activity. “This is the first time that a governing body of an entire people has been deemed an extremist organization. . . In essence, this puts every Crimean Tatar at risk of prosecution.” On the international front, John Kerry accused Putin this week of using counterterrorism as a pretext to “hammer at the opposition” in Syria. An age-old question arises: When does a government’s avowed protection of liberty actually endanger liberty?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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