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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #30

    Letter From the Editors: July 25-31, 2016

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    Issue #30 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #30 Table of Contents

    Kremlin Unleashes Massive Government Reshuffle; Security Agencies Step Up Clan War; Donald Trump – Is He a Putin Agent or Unwitting Kremlin Toady?

    Things got a little topsy-turvy in Russian government and security circles this week as the Kremlin launched another round of sweeping personnel changes. The reshuffle saw many “old guard” governors and officials sacked and replaced with younger, mid-level bureaucrats. RBC suggests that Putin is giving his administration a face-lift ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The president is getting rid of ineffective administrators, but since in many cases they have deep-seated ties to him, and because the unwritten rule is that loyalists get an “honorary retirement,” the result is indeed very much a game of musical chairs, with cushy jobs for the officials who have fallen out of favor. The upshot is that more governors are former security officials. Mikhail Komin writes that these “general governors” will rule with an iron fist: “Their appointment means that the time of consolidation through negotiation is over; it is now time for consolidation through intimidation.” The new policy, Komin says, will be one of managed chaos, designed to instill fear and anxiety among the elite in order to keep them in line. The ultimate goal is to purge politically unreliable officials from all levels of government.

    A similar “purge” is taking the form of an “anticorruption campaign” in the security agencies. This week, the FSB arrested numerous Russian Investigative Committee employees on corruption charges, and the Federal Customs Service chief was arrested on bribery charges. The splashy arrests were part of what some observers consider an interclan war among Russia’s many security agencies. What makes the latest spate of arrests unique is that they are playing out in front of TV cameras. The flustered FCS head was shown with shoe boxes full of cash in a scene deliberately intended to publicly humiliate him.

    This clan war is Russia’s version of “checks and balances,” writes Yekaterina Shulman. Not only does it preclude a Turkey-style coup, but it minimizes the need for Putin to issue explicit orders: “What we think of as the Kremlin is surrounded by bureaucratic clans of varying degrees of proximity [to the president], and each one is trying to guess what the big bosses are thinking and act accordingly.” In other words, much of the flurry of bureaucratic and law-enforcement activity in Russia is driven by mid-level officials’ perceptions of Putin’s agenda. They are trying to climb the ranks and curry favor with the big man himself by doing what they perceive to be his bidding.

    US media outlets this week are having a field day suggesting that this is just what US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is doing – wittingly or unwittingly. They are coming up with all sorts of evidence connecting Trump to the Russian president – even going so far as labeling him “Putin’s puppet” – on account of his supposed business ties with Russia, his pro-Russian policy proposals and the Russian contacts of some of his aides. A recent breach of the Democratic National Committee e‑mail servers has also been billed as the work of Russian hackers, working to discredit the Democrats and tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Does this mean Russia and Trump are working together? A preposterous notion, says Vladimir Frolov. There is no way Trump was in on the e-mail hack, because he would not be privy to a top-secret Russian intelligence mission. Does this mean the Kremlin is rooting for Trump? Not necessarily. According to the analyst, the Kremlin is giving Trump good press coverage simply because he says positive things about Putin, and his agenda would directly and indirectly help Russia. But Moscow also realizes Trump is a wild card who could trigger global instability. So there you have it: He isn’t Russia’s “trump” card – we think. Something tells me this conspiracy theory won’t die quickly.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #29

    Letter From the Editors: July 18-24, 2016

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    Issue #29 Letter From the Editors
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    Turkish Coup: Repercussions at Home and Beyond

    The focal point of this week’s news coverage has been Turkey, where a dizzying series of events unfolded within hours: On the evening of July 15, a section of the Turkish military attempted to overthrow the government, deploying Army units to the streets of Istanbul and taking hostages in Ankara. That night, Turkish President Erdogan called on his supporters to stop the coup, then flew to Istanbul to rally them in person. Antigovernment soldiers surrendered in Istanbul, as loyalist police arrested hundreds of suspected rebels; and by daybreak on July 16, the government announced the coup was over.

    The amazingly quick succession of all this turmoil has divided the Russian media outlets mainly into two camps. The first group trumpets (with a mixture of exultation and dismay) the virtually unlimited authority that Erdogan has amassed. As Anna Glazova comments in Nezavisimaya gazeta: “The Army, which for decades has been the guarantor of the Constitution and Turkey’s secular development, undoubtedly saw how the country was turning into an Islamic state and gradually sliding toward authoritarian rule. . . . They made a desperate attempt to change the situation – an attempt that was destined to fail from the start.” The second group argues, on the contrary, that Erdogan’s authority was faltering and the coup actually benefited him. Some even claim that his supporters orchestrated it themselves. Aleksandr Chursin does not go that far (he says the number of casualties in the street rallies was too high to justify a conspiracy theory), but he does say with oracular confidence: “If there were no coup, Erdogan would have had to invent one.” He adds: “Perhaps it would be fair to say that the coup did provide Erdogan with a unique opportunity to get rid of his opponents.”

    As for repercussions outside Turkey, Oleg Kashin has his own theory, citing Putin’s paranoid responses to past uprisings, e.g. in the post-Soviet space and the Middle East. Is the Russian president worried about a Turkish scenario? Probably not, says Kashin: “[T]he Russian Army could not . . . rise up against the Kremlin, but the Kremlin may very well reenact the Turkish coup as interpreted by Russian conspiracy theorists: Stage a nice little coup, suppress it nicely and then use it to unleash consequences that would be anything but nice.”

    Putin predictions aside, some say the Turkish unrest has already inspired a copycat incident: In Armenia, less than two days after the coup attempt across the border, dozens of armed oppositionists calling themselves the “Daredevils of Sasun” stormed a Yerevan police station, killing one officer and taking the rest hostage. The group claims that this event is the beginning of a national uprising, although no other groups have staged further protest activities as yet. Commentator Mikhail Tishchenko alludes to a possible common cause behind both incidents: “There are also conspiracy theories linking the latest events to talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. . . . Purportedly, Turkey could have made certain concessions. . . . So certain forces tried to prevent that – first through the Istanbul uprising, then with the destabilization in Yerevan.”

    But what if all the unrest stems from internal discord? This is the thrust of a sobering article by Pavel Felgengauer in Novaya gazeta: “Turkey has been embroiled in a civil war for a long time, with Kurds in southeastern provinces fighting for self-government and possible secession. . . . And now, the July 15 armed uprising may trigger a new, additional wave of terror.”

    The evidence is real. Many angry people are in prison after Erdogan’s latest crackdown. And the police officers captured in Yerevan are still pleading for their lives. Theories are all well and good, but these urgent situations call for action as well.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #28

    Letter From the Editors: July 11-17, 2016

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    Issue #28 Letter From the Editors
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    All Quiet on the Western Front – on the Eastern Front, Not so Much.

    The much-anticipated NATO summit this week failed to bring any surprises. Just as expected, the hawks outnumbered the doves. While still speaking about a need for “constructive dialogue,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg still pushed for a tough stance toward Moscow, including reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank with four multinational battalions – one for each Baltic state plus Poland.

    Russian officials weren’t present at the meeting (unlike the 2012 summit, for instance). But a couple of Russian experts were, and their comments do not sound optimistic. Dmitry Trenin, director of the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center who spoke at an expert forum, said that the current situation is not similar to the cold war – it’s worse. “During the cold war, despite all the differences and hatred, we still had dialogue and respect, and now we don’t even have that,” the expert lamented.

    But perhaps such dour forecasts are exaggerated? One sign of improvement in US-Russian relations was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow. This is Kerry’s second trip in four months, writes Yevgeny Medvedev. In what experts see as highly unusual, Kerry is meeting with Putin personally – this is a major departure from protocol, since heads of state usually don’t engage with lower-ranking officials. According to sources, this is further evidence that Moscow and Washington are beginning to coordinate their actions when it comes to Syria. Secretary Kerry’s trip did not sit well with everyone – Pentagon officials were supposedly incensed with the Barack Obama administration’s “overtures” to Russia. Considering that this week, a Syrian helicopter manned by a Russian crew was shot down by rebels over Palmyra with a US-made antitank guided missile, it seems there is disorder in Washington’s ranks.

    This puts the extension of the New START treaty in jeopardy, writes Tatyana Baikova for Izvestia. By all indications, Russian officials are open to “the possibility of extending the treaty with the US on reducing strategic offensive weapons for five years,” but are expecting the US to pull something that would derail such an extension. After all, warned State Duma defense committee chairman Vladimir Komoyedov, “Obama is one of the most militant US presidents.”

    Meanwhile, former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov warns it would be a mistake to put off trying to lay a new foundation for Russian-US relations until there’s a new occupant in the White House. Unlike a lot of experts, Ivanov does not think that Republican candidate Donald Trump would make an easier sparring partner for Moscow, mainly due to a lack of political experience. “It is generally harder to work with foreign policy newcomers; lack of experience often results in inconsistency and unpredictability, which leads to subjective, emotional and sometimes wrong decisions, which are then very difficult to fix,” Ivanov writes. The former foreign minister also says that relations between the two countries must go beyond just interaction between heads of state. While such contacts are important, they “should be complemented by an extensive network of bilateral working arrangements in key areas of cooperation.”

    Moscow also needs to wake up and smell the coffee in Abkhazia, writes Konstantin Zatulin. While a referendum to hold early elections in the breakaway republic fell through, discontent is nevertheless brewing. Moscow shouldn’t expect eternal loyalty from Abkhazia following the 2008 war with Georgia – it needs to take concrete steps to improve the quality of life in the impoverished region. And it is already facing fierce competition from Georgia, which recently opened a medical facility on the border where Abkhaz residents are treated for free. The question is, what can Moscow do for its part? Unless it can answer that question, it’s going to have another disgruntled neighbor in addition to NATO.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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