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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #15

    Letter From the Editors: April 10-16, 2017

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    Issue #15 Letter From the Editors
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    Syria Hems Putin In: Is There No One to Lend Him a Hand?

    In 1840, Russian bard Mikhail Lermontov wrote one of his most famous and poignant poems, beginning with the line: “I’m lonesome and sad and there’s no one to lend me a hand.” Knowing Vladimir Putin’s fondness for Lermontov (whom he famously quoted at rallies in 2012), we wonder if this lyric is ringing in his ears this week? Judging from recent news, Russia is getting desperately short of friends.

    For example, a long-anticipated visit to Moscow from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not bring any gift-wrapped “big deals” (to use Trump’s oft-quoted phrase). Tillerson came to talk tough, rather than to extend a hand in equal partnership. Why? Both Vladimir Frolov and Fyodor Lukyanov say the Syria situation was the game-changer. Last week’s chemical attack, which most of the world attributes to Bashar Assad, showed that Russia either cannot or does not want to keep the Syrian strongman in check. In Tillerson’s words, Moscow is “either complicit or simply incompetent.”

    The Tomahawk air strikes launched by the US in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons seem to have isolated Russia even more. For one thing, most other countries – including Putin’s longtime ally, Turkey – supported the US action. Even China, generally leery of American aggression, did not object to the strikes, writes Vladimir Skosyrev. Furthermore, Aleksei Malashenko argues, the fact that Russian air defense systems (set up as part of the Aerospace Forces’ initial intervention in the conflict) did not stop the Tomahawks raises the question of whether Moscow was incapable of warding off the strikes – or chose not to. This doubt hurts Putin’s credibility in the eyes of the whole world. On the other hand, Malashenko writes: “Moscow simply can’t turn its back on Assad, because that would tantamount to acknowledging that its policy has failed – not just in Syria, but throughout the Middle East.”

    Russia has been blamed for failure in the halls of Strasbourg, too, – in this case, the complaints date back over a decade. The European Court of Human Rights found that Russian special forces botched the rescue operation during the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, in which dozens of Chechen militants took over 1,000 people hostage in a school. Because of the lack of coordination of security actions, the judges ruled, hundreds were needlessly killed during the chaotic standoff.

    A different standoff is centering around Chechnya right now: Since Novaya gazeta published a controversial story April 1 (covered in the last Current Digest), the republic has been coming under fire internationally for violating the human rights of its gay population. In response, Chechen clerics and officials called an assembly at the main mosque in Grozny that drew a crowd of over 15,000. The outcome of that gathering was a resolution vowing “retribution” against the Novaya gazeta staff. Journalists all over Russia know how harsh such retribution can be in the Caucasus.

    Looking just a bit eastward in that region, to Kazakhstan, Putin might be questioning the allegiance of his longtime friend Nursultan Nazarbayev (who for decades has staunchly supported Kremlin policies, including integration initiatives like the Eurasian Union). This week, Nazarbayev published an article laying out the details of a plan to Romanize the Kazakh alphabet by 2025. Sure, one could say it’s only spelling, but some experts see the move as emblematic of a cultural shift. For example, regional analyst Yury Solozobov commented to NG: “Cultural affinity was one of three mainstays, along with energy and defense, that have bound all the CIS countries together with invisible ties. The fact that this framework is eroding is a very significant signal.”

    As Putin assembles his “new majority” in the run-up to next year’s election (they are bound to be quite a motley crew, according to Konstantin Gaaze), we can’t help pondering what Lermontov lyric he’ll use to rally them?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #14

    Letter From the Editors: April 3-9, 2017

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    Issue #14 Letter From the Editors
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    Troubles Rarely Singly Come – St. Petersburg Subway Explosion, Chemical Attack in Syria, Alleged Attacks on Gays in Chechnya

    If this week’s issue of the Digest is ever found in a time capsule, future generations would (rightly) think that the world had gone insane. First, a horrific chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed from 58 to 100 people and injured several hundred, by various estimates. A day earlier, a bomb exploded on the St. Petersburg subway, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more. The casualties could have been much higher, but another bomb was discovered before it went off. To top it all off, human rights activists are reporting that gays are being kidnapped and tortured across Chechnya by the republic’s authorities in an anti-gay witch hunt. All this news is almost too much to handle.

    But even in all this tragedy, a few rays of hope remain. Take, for instance, St. Petersburgers’ incredible show of strength in the face of tragedy. According to local journalist Angelina Davydova, “a spirit of solidarity electrified the city” following the subway blast as people opened their homes and offices to those stranded after the subway system was shut down. Meanwhile, Uber and taxis canceled fares to help people get where they needed to go. “There was almost no panic or anger. Many residents, having felt sad and lost, spoke about a clear need to help others. People were willing to share their pain and to provide emotional support,” writes Davydova. She attributes this growing social solidarity to the rise of grassroots movements and online connectivity.

    Given the importance of a (relatively) free Internet in Russia, any hint of government meddling creates a storm. After Aleksei Navalny blasted Russia’s top online news source, Yandex, for basically ignoring the nationwide protest rallies on March 26, the site claimed technical glitches were to blame. Still, many see state interference tactics at work here – some as simple as clogging online news feeds with government-backed sources, which affects the way aggregators gather and rank news stories.

    Aware that television is losing ground to online sources, the presidential administration is working on ways to make TV programming more popular again, writes Natalya Galimova. According to an RBC source, “[Television] needs to have more discussion of people’s future, the state of the economy and the situation in the country, so there is no gap between the television agenda and issues that actually concern people.” Currently, Russia is inhabited by two groups of citizens – those who get the news from TV and those who get it from online sources – and never the twain shall meet. This trend of having two mindsets in one country is dangerous, says political analyst Gleb Kuznetsov.

    Another social resource getting a makeover before the presidential election is the All-Russia People’s Front – an organization that has basically become a tool for the Kremlin’s personnel oversight, mostly tasked with making sure the regions toe the line. Now, this controversial group is about to be reinvented as a grassroots organization – which is how it was originally conceived.

    Looks like the Kremlin is going to need all the help it can get winning the hearts and minds of the electorate – or at least coming up with coherent explanations. Embattled Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is a shining example of Moscow’s official “see no evil, hear no evil” policy that explains away all accusations with flimsy excuses. Speaking to workers at a meat-packing plant, Medvedev tied to give his side of the story in response to the Anticorruption Fund’s damning viral video about him. But instead of a response, we got a “hodgepodge,” writes Ivan Davydov. Russian officials’ “explanations” always boil down to this simple formula: Deny allegations without addressing the issue, blame external forces seeking to destabilize Russia, repeat. But as comforting as escaping reality may seem – especially given the events this week – it just won’t cut it in today’s increasingly connected world.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #13

    Letter From the Editors: March 27-April 2, 2017

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    Issue #13 Letter From the Editors
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    Irate Putin Remonstrates; Europe’s Embattled Far Right Commiserates; Fed Up Russian, Belarussian Citizenry Demonstrates.

    Putin is sick and tired of being portrayed in the West as a bad boy and accused of foul play in last year’s US presidential election. He made that abundantly clear at the March 30 Arctic Forum, where he called the endless accusations against Russia groundless and expressed hope that Russian-US relations would normalize as soon as possible.

    Columnist Dmitry Minin says it is US Democrats who are pushing the Russian election interference allegations with a McCarthy-like vengeance, but ultimately to their own detriment. And, he says, the Republicans had better not succumb to the “myth of Russians’ almost intrinsic hostility to Americans or the unrelenting threat to America’s security supposedly emanating from Moscow,” if they know what is good for them.

    But the Russian witch hunt in US press and political circles shows no signs of abating, and Trump himself is showing more ambivalence – to put it mildly – toward the Putin regime. Be that as it may, Putin is still very much the darling of some European conservatives who are rallying behind him and what he stands for, ahead of forthcoming European national leadership elections. Many right-wing party leaders think Putin is getting too much of a bad rap from their leftist colleagues. NG writes: “Apparently, he is the embodiment of a strong leader who protects his country’s interests, opposes illegal immigration, supports traditional values and morals, and finally, fights liberalism.”

    At the Arctic Forum, CNBC journalist Geoff Cutmore pressed Putin on Russia’s human rights record – in particular, the detention of demonstrators. In response, Putin harped about Western double standards. Russia has quite a bit of experience dealing with protests. In fact, the weekend before the Arctic Forum, thousands of people took to the streets all across Russia to protest official corruption. The rallies seem to have caught the attention of Russian authorities. Several ranking Russian politicians proposed opening a corruption investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the main object of protesters’ wrath.

    The Russian authorities were seemingly nonplussed by the unauthorized rallies and chose to respond somewhat mildly, writes Tatyana Stanovaya: “In the past, the Kremlin referred to protesters as the fifth column and US State Department agents; now, all of a sudden, it has started calling them proactive citizens with whom the government should engage in dialogue.” The upcoming Russian presidential election may be prompting the authorities to tread lightly and take a softer approach to protests, but this is only a tactical maneuver and a PR stunt, Stanovaya warns.

    On the same weekend as the anticorruption protests in Russia, authorities in Belarus were confronting nationwide antigovernment protests of their own, and the official response there was much less ambiguous. After weeks of rising tension in over a number of unpopular government decisions, the Belarussian authorities finally came down hard on protesters who were planning to use the annual Freedom Day celebration to protest their current lack of freedoms. The police response was quick and massive. The rally organizers were arrested days ahead of the rally, and downtown Minsk was cordoned off so that protesters could not gather at the rally location and march down Independence Prospect as they had planned. And activists at the Vyasna human rights center were temporarily detained so that they could not witness the detentions of protesters in downtown Minsk.

    Columnist Irina Khalip writes that Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is at the end of his rope, and predicts Belarussian citizens are going to keep on protesting. Lukashenko, who had become somewhat less of a pariah to the West of late, might soon be redonning (or pulling down tighter) the hat of a dictator – but perhaps no longer as the last one in Europe. Depends on who you might ask.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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