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

    Letter From the Editors:May 1-14, 2017

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

    The Art of the Possible: Can Russia, Turkey, Iran and America Play Nice in the Peacemaking Game?

    In this Digest’s first feature, military analyst Andrei Akulov exclaims with jubilation: “What seemed to be unbelievable has finally happened! A pipe dream has come true! For the first time in six years since the Syrian conflict began, light is visible at the end of the tunnel. . . . On May 4, Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed a memorandum calling for the establishment of safe zones in Syria during peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.” These zones are located in Idlib and Homs Provinces, the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, and the southern part of the country. They will be patrolled by military forces of the three guarantor states and others; and checkpoints around them will be guarded by rebel soldiers and government troops.

    Akulov’s reaction may seem a tad hyperbolic: After all, the Syrian settlement process has seen several ceasefire plans, including one brokered in the same city, Astana, in January. But there are indeed significant differences this time around. For one, representatives from both the Syrian government and opposition groups were closely involved in negotiations. What’s more, for the first time, an American official was present, too time: Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones.

    Although Washington officially endorsed the plan before, during and after its preparation, it still raised questions in some quarters. For example, several days after the memorandum was signed, Defense Secretary James Mattis fired off a series of questions at a press gathering in Copenhagen: “Who is going to be ensuring [that the zones] are safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them?”

    Yevgeny Shestakov surmises that the Trump administration is nervous about being left out of the game. His sources report that the Syria plan was a key part of the agenda when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: The Russian diplomat told his American counterpart about provisions that are not spelled out in the Astana memorandum.

    Vladimir Frolov portrays Lavrov’s trip to Washington – which also included a meeting with Donald Trump – as part of a series of impressive-looking Russian diplomatic encounters. For example, on the other side of the Atlantic, Vladimir Putin recently received visits from Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi; and he is soon to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow.

    After that may come Putin’s first face-to-face meeting with Trump at the G‑20 summit in Italy. Frolov points out that Moscow has a fine line to walk between pleasing Putin’s electorate and weathering some rough winds from the West. These include Germany’s toughened line on the Ukraine conflict, widespread accusations of domestic human rights violations, and the US’s criticism of Russia’s policies toward the Taliban, nuclear arms and more. To this list we should Emmanuel Macron’s recent victory in the French presidential election: The persistent negative coverage of the young populist in the Kremlin-supported press, coupled with a credible report of Russian hackers trying to interfere with Macron’s campaign, have not made Putin any new friends in Paris.

    Can Putin wrest some kind of victory from his upcoming meeting with Trump, while still giving the US leader some “tweetable deliverables” for his own constituents? Frolov predicts that Trump’s idea of “a ‘big deal’ may be replaced by agreements on certain topics where Moscow could, without much damage to itself, abandon its propaganda narrative and discreetly shift its position toward cooperation with the US.” An overly optimistic possibility? Well, as Otto von Bismarck famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” After the notable level of multilateral cooperation in Astana this week, anything seems possible.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: April 24-30, 2017

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    Issue #17 Letter From the Editors
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    ‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’ – Understanding the Inner Workings of the Kremlin and the French Election

    While the French presidential election has only been through its first round of voting, and the Russian presidential election is a year away, some interesting parallels are already emerging between the two. The starkest difference is of course the number of candidates: The French election featured four leading candidates who “were virtually neck and neck in the polls,” making any predictions as to who will make it into the final round too close to call. Russia essentially has one candidate – Putin. And even he has yet to officially announce his bid, says Prof. Valery Solovei in an interview with The New Times. This ambiguity is feeding a behind-the-scenes power struggle within the elite: “If the candidate is Putin, there’s one agenda. If there’s a different candidate, the agenda is entirely different. It’s assumed right now that Putin is almost sure to run. Still, there’s a certain measure of uncertainty.”

    According to Solovei, the Russian elite are divided into two camps – the security clan and the technocrat clan. While the security clan has some old faces like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, the technocrats have fresh blood, as exemplified by Anton Vaino, the new presidential chief of staff (who replaced another political doyen, Sergei Ivanov) and Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s new domestic policy chief. However, according to the expert, these newcomers share a major flaw: Neither one has an independent agenda.

    Meanwhile, the masses are clearly getting restless (as the March 26 rallies have shown), and the same old TV propaganda just isn’t cutting it anymore. Even corruption – an issue that official television channels have consistently relied upon to mobilize the public – isn’t doing the trick, writes Tatyana Stanovaya. According to her, the wave of high-profile arrests that continues to this day (remember former economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev?) is being used by the FSB to establish control over the country. She points out that despite a wave of corruption exposés sweeping almost every agency in Russia, the FSB itself has so far remained suspiciously above reproach. The only official who has dared point the finger at it – the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Denis Sugrobov – just got 22 years in prison. Coincidence?

    As experts keep wondering whether Putin will run and whether the Kremlin’s “scorched earth” political policy will come back to haunt Russia once its perennial president finally departs (as Mikhail Khodorkovsky warns in an interview with Yevgenia Albats), the French have a little more certainty in their political future. It’s now clear that the final round will be a face-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron and National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Terrified of a Le Pen victory, the French political elite are rallying around Macron, writes Stanovaya. So by all indications, on May 7, he will clinch the presidency. This creates another headache for Moscow, which chose the path of maximum hostility with Macron in an effort to help François Fillon in the race. The Kremlin unleashed the full might of its propaganda machine against Macron – from spreading media stories about him being a “US agent” to hacking his party’s servers (as Macron’s campaign headquarters reported in March).

    But why go after a candidate who initially presented a conciliatory position on Russia, wonders Vladimir Frolov? After all, “when he declared his candidacy, Macron outlined foreign policy positions that were not hostile to Moscow. He argued that Russia must play a decisive role in ending the conflict in Syria. . . . He favored renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine and the gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia.” Perhaps this is yet another cryptic move by the Kremlin’s secretive elite that mere mortals are not meant to understand.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #16

    Letter From the Editors: April 17-23, 2017

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    Issue #16 Letter From the Editors
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    Hot Seats and Cold Shoulders.

    Events this week have some in the hot seat and others getting the cold shoulder. The recent use of chemical agents in Syria is still generating competing versions of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun. Gevorg Mirzayan contends that Syrian President Bashar Assad had no rational motive for using chemical weapons and that the rebels had every reason to flip the chessboard by staging a provocation. He and Nezavisimaya gazeta make things hot for the US and the West, writing that Western versions of the attack are based on unsubstantiated reports and false claims that are being touted as the gospel truth by the Western media.

    Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had similar gripes about the media in a meeting with Vladimir Putin, his first audience with the Russian leader since media reports that Chechen law enforcement has been targeting members of the LGBT community in Chechnya. But what should have been a hot-seat meeting for Kadyrov ended with Putin once again showing him support. In contrast to Putin’s conciliatory tone with the Chechen leader, journalist Sergei Sokolov takes Chechen officials to task, writing that federal officials are not doing enough to dispel the notion that Kadyrov and Chechnya are above the law.

    Nor is the Kremlin dispelling speculation about Putin’s political future. Uncertainty about the president’s plans for the 2018 presidential election is causing the Russian elite to give each other the cold shoulder as they vie for political capital in post-Putin Russia. During a planning meeting for the 2017 Victory Day parade, an inter-elite struggle broke out in full color right in front of Putin, with officials trading accusations of disloyalty to the president. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that the elite are currently in a state of paralysis as they look for cues about Putin’s future.

    Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation is trying to make that future more certain, preparing nationwide rallies to put Putin in the hot seat and get him to bow out of the 2018 election. Konstantin Kalachov says the effort is short-sighted, unoriginal and doomed to fail, since efforts to discredit Putin without offering alternative policies will only flop and perhaps even benefit Putin.

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan found himself facing heat from European politicians following a national referendum that narrowly gave him broader powers. European observers are not happy with the way the referendum was held, or the prospect that Erdogan will use his new mandate to bring back the death penalty. Experts say the EU will almost certainly now give Turkey the cold shoulder.

    Belarus explained its continued use of the death penalty in its first report to the UN since 1997 on civil and political rights in its country. Belarussian activists say the report is an attempt to take heat off Belarus by painting an erroneous picture of the real situation there.

    Some Russian legislators grilled Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for presenting an air-brushed picture of the situation in Russia as he reported on the work of the government in the State Duma. The prime minister essentially told deputies to quit whining and come up with realistic proposals to get the country back on the right track.

    Hopes that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would put Russian-US relations back on track were neither met nor dashed following his meeting with Kremlin officials in Moscow. Mikhail Troitsky says the Trump administration may be seeking to move from a cold-shoulder attitude to a more businesslike approach to Russia, but scandals putting the administration in the hot seat at home could keep bilateral ties on ice.

    And things are heating up under North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, but Moscow is not the one turning up the thermostat, writes Vladimir Frolov. The expert says Russia lacks the right tools in its foreign policy kit to effectively deal with the nuclear crisis on its borders, so it is giving everyone involved in the issue the cold shoulder, letting the West deal with the problem largely on its own.

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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