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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #27

    Letter From the Editors: July 4-10, 2016

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    Issue #27 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #27 Table of Contents

    Russia and NATO: With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

    The countdown to the next NATO summit in Warsaw is nearing the final few ticks. Never has anticipation of a NATO summit been so high – and that’s perhaps the only thing NATO members and Russia can agree on. “In Warsaw, NATO will show the world that it is ready to shape the security environment, promote peace and project stability,” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski stated excitedly. Meanwhile, such unabated enthusiasm drew some sneers from Moscow. According to Russian senator Konstantin Kosachov, NATO is a cold war relic that has struggled to find its purpose in the modern world. “Despite being armed to the teeth and prepared to deflect any large-scale military aggressions. . . . the alliance has been completely useless in combating modern threats. Namely, the threat of terrorism,” Kosachov crowed in a lengthy Izvestia editorial piece.

    Meanwhile, NATO set some ambitious goals for the upcoming summit – deploying four battalions numbering a total of 4,000 troops in the Baltic states and Poland. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the summit should agree on ways to “step up our efforts to project stability beyond our borders.” But the acute phase of the conflict between Russia and NATO (read: the West) passed, writes commentator Leonid Radzikhovky. Ukraine remains a major bone of contention, but nevertheless, a “bad peace” can be expected, he states.

    Another uneasy truce is this week’s release from house arrest of embattled Domodedovo airport owner Dmitry Kamenshchik. According to Vedomsti’s Aleksandra Terentyeva, it seems that Kamenshchik has dodged a bullet. Moreover, he did comply with the investigation’s demands to set up a compensation fund for victims of the January 2011 terrorist blast in the airport. Of course, writes Terentyeva, in Russia you never know how long until your lucky streak runs out. Still, Kamenshchik proved more tenacious than most – no wonder his office has a plaque that reads “fortune favors the bold.”

    Mikhail Prokhorov, another bold entrepreneur, is also testing his “luck of the oligarch.” After the offices of his company, Onexim Group, were raided by the FSB, rumors started swirling that Prokhorov had fallen out of favor with the Kremlin thanks to his media empire’s investigation into the Kremlin’s financial schemes. Some have suggested that Prokhorov would soon follow in the footsteps of oligarchs Berezovsky and Gusinsky, and flee Russia. Onexim management stated that the conflict with the authorities has run its course. But not everyone is so sure – according to one anonymous source, “Everything depends on how deep [the Kremlin’s] resentment goes.”

    Resentment seems to be the operative word in Abkhazia. Recognized by few other than Russia, the breakaway Georgian republic saw large-scale protests this week demanding the resignation of the internal affairs minister (which was granted) and the president (which was not). The riots, which left about 20 people injured, were driven mainly by the government dragging its feet on a referendum on an early presidential election. After Brexit, writes Slon’s Mikhail Tishchenko, referendum fever has been spiking around the world – and Abkhazia is no exception.

    President Raul Khadzhimba promised the Abkhaz people that they will have their say, but many say he is reneging on his promise. Scheduling the referendum at the height of the summer vacation season is one indication, critics claim. So, Abkhazia may just see another coup d’état in less than two years. For now, it seems that stability exists only in the heads of NATO officials.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #26

    Letter From the Editors: June 27-July 3, 2016

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    Issue #26 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #26 Table of Contents

    Brexit Begins to Sink in; Russian Antiterrorism Legislation Stirs Controversy

    The world is still reeling from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Assessments in Russia are mixed: Aleksei Mukhin calls the vote a result of Europe’s traditional arrogance toward other countries, while Yulia Latynina calls it a British rebellion against Brussels’s socialist agenda and growing bureaucracy. Aleksei Pushkov says Britons were feeling helpless in the face of a tide of migrants from war-torn Syria and Libya, and feeling trapped by an “establishment system” that had robbed them of their sovereignty. Aleksandr Dudchak says Brexit opponents are certain to somehow blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the referendum result, but Russian-European relations may nevertheless enter a more pragmatic phase as European politicians sober up. However, he warns that NATO may be strengthened as it comes to be viewed as the sole stable supranational organization in Europe, so Russia must respond appropriately.

    Brexit could also have an unforeseen effect on Turkey’s relations with Russia, which soured last year after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian warplane at the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish side has issued a formal apology, which Kirill Martynov says was partly prompted by the UK referendum, since its associate EU membership prospects are now in doubt because of Brexit. This is forcing the Turkish leadership to extend an olive branch to Russia in order to restore the country’s economic and political ties with an alternative partner. At any rate, Maksim Artemyev says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once seen as the most successful Turkish leader since Ataturk and a regional powerhouse, is now facing a political impasse, confronted with growing terrorism threats and regional isolation on account of his support for moderate Islamists in the region. What does this mean for Russia? According to Vladimir Frolov, it offers Putin a chance to show the world that Russia is an agreeable partner, allowing it to break out of its besieged fortress. It also means Putin can add another victory to his foreign policy trophy case, the analyst writes.

    Putin’s domestic policy trophy case, however, is in need of a few more trophies ahead of the September State Duma elections. The president issued an impassioned plea to members of United Russia – the party he founded in order to, in his words, “strengthen Russia as a state and to consolidate the nation” – at its recent convention, calling on them to listen to the people. “We all want Russia to be a strong, independent, open and prosperous country where each and every person can fulfill themselves, their talents, their potential; where the government and the people hear, support and respect each other; where social harmony, solidarity and national interests are above any disagreements,” Putin told his faithful followers.

    But do those words ring true? The Russian State Duma this week passed a package of “antiterrorist” legislative amendments containing measures that have come under criticism as unconstitutional and authoritarian – not to mention technically and financially burdensome. The Yarovaya-Ozerov bill requires communication and Internet providers to store user text messages, conversations, as well as “images, sounds, and any video and other messages” for up to six months. In addition, communication providers must give the FSB the keys to decode all encrypted messages, and Internet companies must now only use encryption keys certified in Russia. So much for personal privacy. It seems that the Kremlin is bent on prioritizing national interests over individual interests. This is not necessarily a new concept in Russia, but you’d think Putin wouldn’t be so bold as to sugarcoat Russia’s transformation into a police state by telling citizens that Russia strives to be a place where “the government and the people hear, support and respect each other.”

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #24-25

    Letter From the Editors: June 13-26, 2016

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    Issue #24-25 Letter From the Editors
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    Brexit, Foreign Investment, Russian Elections and NATO: What’s All This Got to Do With Fridges?


    This week’s letter starts with a confession: One of the Current Digest’s translators, who shall remain nameless, took a sharp semantic swerve by rendering the Russian kholodilnik (“refrigerator”) as “wallet.” What’s more, our editors (who, for better or worse, cannot remain nameless) liked the idea! Before readers start calling us incompetent – or using less printable epithets – let’s explain the context: Mikhail Khodorkovsky said in an interview with The New Times that “the stability of the proestablishment majority isn’t that strong. And when their refrigerators start talking, people need to understand that they have an alternative.” We changed the fridge phrase to “when their wallets are empty.” This decision was further justified by a later mention of the same household appliance, in which the interviewer talks about needing to survive “until, as you put it, the refrigerator starts shouting over the television.” Entertaining as the image was, we went with the phrase: “until . . . people start voting with their wallets.” These decisions were based on what translation theorists call “textual cohesion”: In other words, our primary concern was not the figurative images for their own sake, but the rhetorical strategy they were meant to accomplish.

    Speaking of a cohesive strategy, do Russia’s antiestablishment forces have one? This week’s lively interviews with Khodorkovsky and fellow oppositionist Aleksei Navalny leave that issue open to question. But when it comes to the Russian establishment, commentators cite a definite trend of rapprochement toward Europe that was observed at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Tatyana Stanovaya cites the government’s “liberal” strategies to increase Russia’s investment appeal; Anastasia Bashkatova argues that having failed in its “pivot to the East,” Russia is now turning again to the West; and Nikita Krichevsky ticks off statistics about new oil and gas contracts signed at the forum. However, Aleksandr Dudchak laments, Moscow’s foreign policy continues to be reactive – overly dependent on whatever steps Europe takes.

    The same can certainly not be said of Great Britain, which voted this week to withdraw from the EU. The results of this historic referendum seem to run contrary to Khodorkovsky’s remarks about economic concerns eventually precipitating changes in the status quo (not just in Russia, but in Europe). In fact, as Geoffrey Smith wrote in Fortune magazine the week before the vote, the tide of public opinion turned despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s doomsday forecasts of economic ruin that a “Brexit” would bring. Thus, the Brits decided not to listen to their wallets (or their fridges). Vladislav Inozemtsev sees a silver lining here: Now that the UK is out of the picture, the EU has a golden opportunity to reinvent itself as a more flexible yet more inclusive association that could expand all the way to Russia’s borders.

    If that idea sets off any alarm bells for Digest readers, then you can imagine how President Putin and his military advisers feel about it. Actually, you don’t have to imagine: Just read Pavel Felgengauer’s account of the Russian Defense Ministry’s paranoia: “[A] hotbed of threat has already emerged . . . and it is not confined to the Baltic. There is also the Donetsk Basin, the Crimea, the Black Sea, the Caucasus . . . and the Arctic, where, as the ice melts, all sorts of unpleasant encounters are bound to start at sea and in the air.” Or check out NG’s account of Putin’s speech at the State Duma, where he proposes to disband NATO. Talk about a chill in international relations! Must be that pesky fridge acting up again.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #23

    Letter From the Editors: June 6-12, 2016

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    Issue #23 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #23 Table of Contents

    Follow the Leader on a Geopolitical Scale: Who Will Be the Last Player Standing?

    A game of “follow the leader” is afoot in Eurasia and beyond! In Eastern Europe, EU countries and NATO members are currently following Washington’s lead, if you believe officials like Igor Morozov, member of the Russian Federation Council’s international affairs committee. In his opinion, “We might have doubted the Europeans’ death wish (read: willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of US interests)***but the aviation training program for German, British and Belgian pilots shows that they will soon be flying aircraft with tactical nuclear weapons on board.”   

    Apparently, NATO’s continued eastward expansion and ramped up military presence in the region is putting Moscow a little bit on edge. Such anxiety isn’t reserved for staunch Putinists: Even Mikhail Gorbachev said that “the window to a nuclear-free world that was cracked open in Reykjavik in 1986 is being slammed shut and locked down before our very eyes.” The two largest nuclear states – the US and Russia – are quick to point the finger at each other. According to Gen. Philip Breedlove (now-former commander of US forces in Europe), “Russia***represents a long-term threat to the very existence of the United States and its partners in Europe.” For his part, President Putin’s response to calls for easing geopolitical tensions was brusque, as always – “We weren’t the ones who started it.”

    Meanwhile, in their own game of “follow the leader,” nations like China, North Korea and Pakistan are taking a wait-and-see approach on ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty: If the US hasn’t done so yet, why should they, wonders military expert Viktor Litovkin.

    Military confrontation aside, some states are beginning to gang up on Russia economically by throwing a challenge to its “national treasure” – Gazprom. This week, Poland announced it will seek independence from Russian gas after 2022, when its contract with Gazprom expires. Warsaw is joining two other unsatisfied customers – Minsk and Kiev – in their struggle to get a price reduction. Many experts believe such statements are merely part of a negotiating game. “Europe has no alternative to Russian gas for the next two to three years,” says expert Ivan Andriyevsky. But after that, it’s anyone’s game, and who knows who will play the lead.

    That is why Russia needs to get serious about building bridges with China, writes Yekaterina Zabrodina. Following a recent Valdai International Discussion Club meeting, it became clear that relations with the West continue to remain frosty at best, so hopes for quick normalization have been dashed. However, a recent forum in Shanghai showed just “how many discrepancies and misunderstandings there are” between Russia and China, says international affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov. If Russia is serious about its turn to the east, it has its work cut out for it.

    On the steppes of Central Asia, a shocking act rocked the seemingly stable Kazakhstan to the core: Gunmen attacked two gun shops and a military base. The unofficial death toll stands at 30. Meanwhile, both the Kazakh authorities and experts in Kazakhstan and beyond are flummoxed by this brazen act. Who was behind it, and what was their motive? Theories range from a Russian trail to ISIS involvement. But most experts and commentators agree that this incident highlighted just how much Kazakhstan – a prosperous and calm nation, compared to its neighbors – is dependent on the Yelbasy, its national leader. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is nearing 75, and as Oleg Kashin puts it, “Kazakh political stability is still limited by how long the founder of the Kazakh state is going to live.” That is indeed a game of “follow the leader” that could end very badly.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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