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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #4

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 23-29, 2017

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    The French and Bon Jovi Agree: Don’t Expect Big Changes

    French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The expression even inspired a Bon Jovi song, so clearly Karr was onto something. Which leads us to ask: As major upheavals continue to rock the globe in 2017, how much are things really changing?

    For instance, the Astana talks on Syria concluded in the Kazakh capital this week. The talks, which were the result of a hard-won ceasefire engineered by Russia, Iran and Turkey (note the glaring absence of a certain well-known global player), failed to bring any major breakthroughs. Choosing to remain optimistic, most analysts said the fact that the talks took place is important in and of itself. According to Alex Gorka, the results of the Astana meeting were “significant enough to pave the way for resuming the UN-brokered intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, Switzerland.”

    Weighing in with his own unique perspective, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky added that while the Geneva talks “resembled a political show for the press,” Astana managed to gather “actual field commanders who control the situation on the ground.” Still, even Vladimir Volfovich admits the talks themselves were fruitless. So much for creating a new format.

    Meanwhile, another event that kept commentators on the edge of their seats (or set their teeth on edge, depending on where they stand) was Donald Trump’s inauguration. But those tensions, just like the Astana talks, pretty much fizzled out. Senator Konstantin Kosachov, head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, worked himself into a tizzy predicting all but an armed revolt. And yet, the Donald was inaugurated without much hubbub – and with a fairly modest crowd in attendance. Now that Trump is officially the 45th president of the United States, are big changes really in store?

    According to Aleksei Fenenko, given the sorry state of US-Russian relations, it’s best for the two superpowers to stick to the tried-and-true agenda of minimizing the chance of an armed confrontation. Moscow and Washington have been in search of a positive agenda for the past 25 years or more – to no avail. The Obama administration tried to break the mold and “reset” relations. But as a result, writes Fenenko, “Russia and the US ended up with neither a negative agenda nor a positive one. . . . Therefore, what Moscow and Washington need now are not loud statements about a new ‘reset,’ but real steps to revive the negative agenda in their negotiations.”

    However, “stay the course” is not much of a campaign slogan. And both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are fans of splashy statements, so quietly resuming a policy of détente probably isn’t in the cards. Expert Tatyana Stanovaya warns that if the US starts meeting Putin halfway on anything, he will simply up the ante. “Russia’s interests are nested inside a giant matryoshka, where each demand has a new one hidden inside,” she writes. Trump the tireless deal-maker does not look like someone who would give with no take. There goes the start of that beautiful friendship.

    Events are also staying the course in Ukraine – chaotically, as always. In their constant search of someone to blame for all problems, the Kiev authorities are now focusing on oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, who is also former president Kuchma’s son-in-law. The cause of this latest manifestation of righteous rage is Pinchuk’s controversial article in The Wall Street Journal: Several Rada deputies claim it basically suggests Ukraine cut its losses as far as territorial integrity is concerned and cut a deal with Russia. Pinchuk claims The Wall Street Journal radically altered his title and condensed the article, “which influenced how readers perceived the text.” Pinchuk is hardly the first – or the last – influential Ukrainian businessman to end up in the hot seat, proving that Karr’s age-old adage still holds true. Here’s to staying the course in 2017.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #3

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 16-22, 2017

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    Making Sense of US Presidential Politics, Shifting Alliances in Syria, International Politics, Rosneft Privatization Schemes.

    The Russian press continues to weigh in on the change of executive power in the US, assessing the impact of both the incoming and outgoing presidents on Russia’s interests and bilateral relations.

    Aleksandr Gabuyev offers a withering criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency, attributing his failures to a hands-off administrative style and reticent personality, and calling him a “nauseating bureaucrat.” Gabuyev says that Obama would only get involved on issues that interested him personally, leaving those that didn’t to lower level officials to deal with as they wished. After the failure of the Obama-initiated reset in US-Russian relations, Washington essentially washed its hands of Russia, Gabuyev contends.

    Trump is definitely no bureaucrat (though certainly nauseating to many), and he is a fresh if not welcome change for Moscow. But Russian commentators are still trying to figure out just what the change means for Russia. Trump’s top advisers and cabinet figures have differing, even contradictory, views on Russia, making Trump’s Russian strategy hard to pin down. Vladimir Frolov believes Trump may try to use arms reductions as a safe starting place for negotiations that could be tied to a host of other issues such as the Crimea, Ukraine, sanctions, Syria, etc. – offering Russia rock-bottom deals on fundamental issues in exchange for Russian cooperation in fighting terrorism. The Moscow Times writes that the Russian and US presidents are in many respects soul mates, sharing a common worldview and opinions: “They both seem to believe that the world’s liberal order merely hides the Western establishment’s personal interests under a disingenuous mask of values.” So will Putin and Trump join forces to bring the “liberal order” to heel? And if Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election, will she join them? Considering what she told Izvestia reporters in an exclusive interview, she very well could.

    Oddly enough, it might just be the leader of China who stands up against a Trumpian world order. Nikolai Epple writes that Xi Jinping was the only responsible leader railing against protectionism, and voicing continued support for globalization and international cooperation at a recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. This strikes Epple as an almost comical role reversal: China is now lecturing the rest of the world on openness?!

    The Trump presidency and a potential new world order are not the only puzzles Russian analysts are trying to solve. This week, Pavel Felgengauer delved into the increasingly convoluted fight in Syria, focusing on a curious alliance that has formed in the fight for al‑Bab. In trying to drive ISIS from the city, Russia is now engaged in joint operations with its would-be foe, Turkey, which is providing support for Free Syrian Army detachments – which, in turn, are considered terrorists by Syrian President Bashar Assad (doggedly backed by Russia). The battle with this odd configuration of forces is being fought a week before a much-anticipated round of negotiations in Astana, where the strange bedfellows (Russia, Turkey and Iran) hope to mediate a Syrian peace agreement while carving out a greater role for their countries in the region, writes Aleksandr Shumilin.

    Meanwhile, journalist Aleksei Polukhin has been busy wading through last month’s Rosneft privatization deal, which is turning out to be messier and messier. He discovered that not only does it involve shady, hastily thrown together conglomerations of international investors and financiers, but it turns out that the loan to cover the majority of the purchase amount may have come entirely from Russia’s own Foreign Trade Bank (VTB). And get this: Former Russian economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was unceremoniously arrested at Rosneft headquarters for allegedly soliciting a bribe, is on VTB’s oversight board. So, what sort of sense are we to make of that?

    Matthew Larson,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-2

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-15, 2017

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    Ringing in the New Year With ‘Fake News’

    The incoming US executive team took a swing at the reputation of the American press during their first press conference of the year, which took place Jan. 11. First, vice-president-elect Mike Pence used the phrase “fake news” to describe a recently published report on alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russian President Putin. Later in the conference, Trump himself interrupted a CNN journalist’s question by saying he didn’t want to speak to media outlets that publish “fake news.”

    The same week, another American institution – the intelligence community – had its reputation impugned, this time by Russian commentators. The Russian press had a field day with a controversial joint report by the NSA, FBI and CIA that claimed the Russian government had influenced the US presidential election (including by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail servers). Political analyst Vladimir Bruter, writing in Izvestia, identified five “fake premises” that underlie the report’s conclusions (for example, that Russia has a media presence in the US significant enough to sway domestic politics).

    However, Bruter does his profession a disservice by overstating the case: “[T]he NSA, the largest US intelligence service, essentially disagreed with the report’s contention that ‘Putin and the Russian government aspired to help president-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting [former] secretary [of state] Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.’ ” If we look at the actual report, it reads: “All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”

    A more subtle distortion can be found in Izvestia’s coverage of the press conference mentioned above. Reporters Tatyana Baikova and Aleksei Zabrodin summarized as follows Trump’s response to a question about whether he believed the hacking allegations: “[T]he president-elect said that Russia could have been behind the attacks on Democratic Party servers.” According to The New York Times transcript of the conference, Trump’s response was more assured: “I think it was Russia.”

    Is this discrepancy a mere nuance of meaning, or a sign that the Russian press is trying to make Trump look like a Russophile? Or at least not a Russophobe, like Barack Obama and his outgoing administration? Speaking of which – the latest outrage perpetrated by the latter (as reported in Vedomosti) is that it has expelled 35 Russian diplomats from US soil, in response to the evidence presented in the aforementioned intelligence report. However, the Vedomosti article emphasizes, Putin is not stooping to the level of a symmetric response, so as to leave the door open for friendly relations with incoming president Trump.

    Apparently, Putin is not the only one who wants to make nice with the American billionaire-turned-politician. Arina Tsukanova reports in the SCF Online Journal that Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko is paying a public relations firm called the BGR Group $50,000 a month to “strengthen US-Ukraine relations and encourage private US businesses to invest in Ukraine.”

    If we want to put a positive spin on that, we could call it “soft power.” What about the more objective arena of military power? Matthew Bodner reports that Russia has now scaled back its naval forces in the Syrian theater, shipping off a battlegroup led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. However, this big move was likely a symbolic gesture, Bodner argues: With ceasefire negotiations in the works, “Putin needed a gesture of good faith that would not severely compromise his military options in Syria.”

    Do stories like this represent the new face of news in a “post-truth” world? Well, hang on tight, Digest readers – the year is just beginning.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #51-52

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 19-31, 2016

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    Goodbye for Now: The Most Memorable Moments of 2016.

    As 2016 draws to a close, most will agree that it was a year with more than its fair share of shocks, surprises and plot twists. Before the final curtain descends on this turbulent year, here are the seven most memorable events of 2016, in no particular order:

    Brexit. – Despite most expert predictions, UK citizens voted in June to leave the European Union. According to Vladislav Inozemtsev, continental Europe’s hysterical reaction to the UK’s possible withdrawal was partly to blame: “It’s hard to shake the idea that this hype about the importance of the moment turned out to be an additional factor that swayed the vote.”

    President Trump. – Not to be outdone, Britain’s former subjects pulled a stunt of their own in November, electing billionaire reality show host Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States. Once again, most polls got it wrong. But political expert Fyodor Lukyanov has a few words of advice for Mr. Trump: “You promised to ‘make America great again,’ and apparently your view of [a great America] is something like the ‘good old’ ’50s, when America was the winner in a terrible and just war; had authority; but had not yet learned political correctness. You won’t be able to return there, just as your opponent could not return to the ‘golden age’ of her husband, Bill [Clinton].”

    Arrest of Aleksei Ulyukayev. – The now-former economic development minister’s arrest on corruption charges came like a shot out of the blue: Not even his boss, Prime Minister Medvedev, saw it coming. Many experts saw the shadow of Rosneft CEO Sechin behind the brouhaha.

    Savchenko flies home. – Ukraine’s celebrity pilot convicted in Russia for the murders of two Russian journalists was exchanged for two Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine, arriving home on May 25. The Moscow Times predicted that Savchenko’s prickly personality will now become a thorn in the Kiev regime’s side. That prediction proved correct – last we heard, the Batkivshchina [Fatherland] party, which she joined, was working to expel her. 

    Navalny for president – or for prison? – Opposition activist Aleksei Navalny announced he is going to run in the 2018 presidential election. The announcement came after Russia’s Supreme Court overturned his earlier conviction for embezzling funds from the KirovLes timber company. But according to Tatyana Stanovaya, the Kremlin has crossed the invisible red line where anything goes, so the temptation to “squash [Navalny] like a bug” is stronger than ever.

    All not quiet in Montenegro. – Before it was accused of meddling in the US presidential election, Russia was implicated in an alleged coup attempt in Montenegro. According to the Montenegrin authorities, a group of Russian nationals planned to start a protest rally against the supposedly rigged parliamentary elections, set off a riot and even allegedly kill the prime minister. It’s the stuff John le Carré novels are made of.

    Murder of Russian ambassador to Turkey. – In a shocking conclusion to an already tumultuous year, Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov was shot eight times at point-blank range by a Turkish security official on Dec. 19. The killer’s shout of “This is for Aleppo!” leaves not a shadow of a doubt that the consequences of Russia’s operation in Syria are starting to catch up with it.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #50

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 12-18, 2016

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    Socialism Without a Corrupt Face.

    Staunch Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny has officially announced an unofficial presidential bid. The high-profile statement raises a lot of eyebrows, questions and faint hopes among Russian political observers. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that the Kremlin has three options for dealing with Navalny, ranging from tough to brutal, and it will most likely favor the latter, since it is in no mood to put up with shenanigans – especially by the likes of Navalny – during a period of geopolitical turbulence. Putin went easy on him three years ago, when the corruption fighter was convicted on embezzlement charges but given a suspended sentence. But the circumstances have changed in the post-Crimean era. Stanovaya says that “in March 2014, Putin crossed an invisible line, beyond which the Machiavellian logic of ‘the end justifies the means’ has become more pronounced and uncompromising. What was unimaginable before 2014 is now a reality.” So is Navalny signing another arrest warrant by going toe to toe with his stalwart foe?

    Yevgeny Karasyuk comments that while in many respects Navalny and Putin couldn’t be further apart, they are almost kindred spirits politically – oddly enough. Navalny’s proposed campaign platform is very similar to Putin’s, and their statements on many key issues almost identical. Assuming Navalny is allowed to run, he would presumably be a populist candidate in the Putin mold. Just whose interests Navalny would be championing remains to be seen: businesspeople, the middle class, pensioners, the elite. Nezavisimaya gazeta writes that for now he is simply displaying the most alluring goods he has for sale for each group. What he most definitely isn’t selling is full-on Western-style liberalism. NG writes that classic economic liberalism is foreign to Russia, and Navalny won’t be able to peddle it to the populace unless it is tightly wrapped in a populist/socialist package. This isn’t surprising, since socialism in one form or another has been the prevailing political fashion in Russia for ages, and it is unlikely to change any time soon.

    A Just Russia party chairman Sergei Mironov would certainly agree. In an article with the not-so-subtle headline “Do We Need a State Ideology? Yes We Do!” he bemoans the fact that Russia’s Constitution bans a state ideology – a restriction he believes is unraveling Russia’s moral fabric. He argues that although the Constitution prohibits a state ideology, it nevertheless tacitly supports one of patriotism and socialism. He cites Art. 7 as an example of this “state ideology”: “The Russian Federation is a social state whose policy is aimed at creating conditions that ensure a dignified life for human beings and their free development.” Mironov feels Russians are becoming disoriented without an explicit ideology of national patriotism founded on socialist principles.

    Russia’s socialist bent partly explains why the sudden sale of a 19.5% stake in state-run oil giant Rosneft strikes many as fishy. At the gut level, many Russians consider the sale a betrayal of Russia’s inherent social interests: the idea that state companies and their subterranean resources belong to the people. But the announced deal is fishy for a whole lot of other potentially pernicious (“oily”?) reasons, and likely only Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin knows whose palms are getting “greased.” Suffice it to say that a lot of seemingly random cards fell into place at just the right moment to give a boon to some unknown beneficiary at the cost of the Russian federal budget and the taxpayer’s wallet. We might not know the faces and exact value of those cards, but to call a spade a spade, corruption has proven to be just as fashionable in Russia as socialism. But maybe Navalny could change that.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #48-49

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 28-Dec. 11, 2016

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    Hail to the Chief: Putin a Good Face on It

    Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been the star of the Russian press these last two weeks. The reasons may seem obvious: He just delivered his annual Message to the Federal Assembly; and shortly before that, he approved a new Foreign Policy Concept and Information Security Doctrine for his country.

    But that was just the beginning. A few days after his annual address, Putin traveled to Chelyabinsk, where he made the following resounding statement to a group of factory workers: “I want to successfully wind up my career.” He also divulged his dream of traveling around the world and seeing sights other than airports and meeting rooms. These brief remarks set the Russian media on fire: Is Putin going to retire? Will he even run in the 2018 election? Does he have his eye on a successor? Experts interviewed by Ola Cichowlas and Mikhail Fishman for the Moscow Times say that Putin himself is ambivalent; in the words of an anonymous Kremlin insider: “He wants to stay and he wants to go.” Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya surmises that he is indeed planning an exit, but predicts he will serve out a full fourth term. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in an interview with The New Times, does not venture to prophesy when Russia’s sole president of this millennium will leave office; he only says that the departure is inevitable, and that it’s incumbent on the opposition to counter any infighting among the elite, and to allow Putin to leave peacefully.

    As for the global picture, Russian commentators have been focusing on recent trends in European politics – and their prevailing opinion seems to be that the new generation of Western leaders is friendly to Putin. They cite French presidential primary victory of François Fillon, who wants to end anti-Russian sanctions; the rise of Austrian right-wing politician Norbert Hofer, who also decries the sanctions; not to mention the recent victories of pro-Russian presidents in Bulgaria and Moldova. What’s more, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said (as quoted by SCF journalist Peter Korzun) that he “would like to have discussions on a level footing with Russia.” Even commentator Andrei Kolesnikov, whom we can generally depend upon to cut his president down to size, acknowledges: “Now, [Putin] is a global leader in his own right. And this image has been bought by the West: Putin is successfully peddling fear in the West and threats domestically. And now he is king of the hill.” Of course, Kolesnikov adds with a dash of sarcasm, if Western countries (including the US, under the presidency of Donald Trump) become Russia’s friends, how will Putin keep up the “besieged fortress” mentality that has so effectively mobilized domestic support?

    Besides this hypothetical worry, the only thing raining on Putin’s victory parade lately is Turkey. After months of largely friendly cooperation with Moscow in Syria, Turkish President Erdogan came out with an unexpected official statement (as quoted by RIA Novosti): “We are there to restore justice and end the cruel reign of tyrant [Bashar] Assad, who is carrying out a policy of state terrorism in the country.” This remark, coupled with a series of attacks on Turkish forces in Syria by unidentified jets, seemed to land Putin (a staunch Assad supporter) in an awkward position. Granted, as Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky explains in an RBC article, Turkey cannot afford to alienate Russia, since Europe is growing increasingly opposed to Ankara’s accession to the EU. The Russian media jumped in to give their president extra support by covering a pair of phone conversations between Putin and Erdogan shortly after the air attacks. The headline to Vladimir Mukhin’s article on this topic in Nezavisimaya gazeta reads: “Putin Saves Damascus and Ankara from Large-Scale War.” So even in this troubled area, Vladimir Vladimirovich has come out smelling like a rose.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,
    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #47

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 21-27, 2016

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    The View From the Kremlin – Living the Dream in a Post-Truth World

    In what could be called the Year of Backlash (with all the previous references to Brexit and Trump), 2016 continues to shock and amaze. On the heels of the surprising arrest of economic development minister Aleksei Ulyukayev last week, Russian commentators rushed to wrap their collective brains around the Igor Sechin Phenomenon. For better or worse, it looks like Putin’s ally from his days at St. Petersburg City Hall is upping the ante politically. But as Andrei Kolesnikov points out, Sechin is not a political figure – at least officially. He is merely the CEO of a state-owned corporation. However, he is rumored to have strong ties with law enforcement, and as we saw last week, he isn’t shy about using them.

    According to Yevgenia Albats, Rosneft is now officially taking on the powers of law-enforcement agencies: “What we are witnessing is not the merging of the state and business. . . but rather the merging of a repressive agency with the wealthiest state-owned corporation,” she writes. Is this the emergence of a corporate state in Russia, something that Benito Mussolini once ominously described as, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”?

    Vladimir Pastukhov takes Albats’ sentiments a step further. Yes, Sechin is currently ruthlessly asserting himself on the political arena, going after the so-called liberal establishment (as embodied by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin). But by showing that he is in a way bigger than Putin, Sechin could be setting himself up for a very big fall: “Sechin’s over-the-top pushiness could at some point force Putin to take response measures. And in that case, there will be no shortage of people willing to cut [Sechin] down to size.”

    Perhaps Sechin can only hope that Putin is too distracted with trying to figure out how to play his cards right in the Middle East to worry about interclan power struggles. With Donald Trump to take over the White House in January 2017, Moscow’s Middle East strategy is in disarray: While Trump vowed to make fighting terrorism his top priority, he also promised to take a tougher line with Iran – Moscow’s ally in Syria, writes Mikhail Troitsky. And one condition for normalizing relations with Russia could require Moscow to jump on the bandwagon and get tough with Tehran. What’s more, in order to move toward reconciliation, Russia would have to fundamentally alter its view of the US. For the past several years, Russian propaganda has successfully convinced the domestic audience that America is a geopolitical foe hell-bent on destroying Russia. So is it possible to shift gears and instead portray the US as a “positive force in international relations”? With a presidential election in Russia on the horizon, that would mean “abandoning an important lever of influence on voters,” says Troitsky.

    The view isn’t all bad from the Kremlin this week: Elections in Bulgaria and Moldova were a pleasant surprise, writes Gevorg Mirzayan. Both countries elected politicians who campaigned on improving ties with Russia: Bulgaria’s Rumen Radev does not position himself as either pro-European or pro-Russian, but rather an independent candidate. Moldova’s Igor Dodon, for his part, campaigned on a heavily pro-Russian platform, also proposing outlawing “unionism” (the movement to unite Moldova and Romania).

    Not to be outdone, European Parliament deputies rushed to stem the effects of Russian propaganda by adopting a controversial resolution that effectively lumps Russia together with ISIS and Al Qaeda, writes Aleksandr Mineyev. The resolution aims to fight propaganda that “undermines and erodes the European narrative based on democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.” But is the EU’s measure too little, too late, given that the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #46

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 14-20, 2016

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    A Week of Bewilderment, Befuddlement, Bemusement.

    Nothing can be taken for granted these days, it seems. Not after Brexit and Trump. The world is still processing – reeling over – Donald’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election. Experts are nervously contemplating the consequences of what appears to be a nascent era of populist backlash against establishment political figures, attitudes and institutions – and perhaps even more broadly, modernity. Whatever new era might be dawning, it will certainly be one of political and general uncertainty.

    Russia is not immune to surprising developments, it turns out. The biggest head-scratcher to come out of Russia this week was the middle-of-the-night arrest of Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was allegedly caught accepting a bribe from Rosneft for giving a “positive assessment that allowed Rosneft to purchase a controlling stake in Bashneft.” There are many eyebrow-raising elements to the case, writes Yulia Latynina. For example, the “bribe” allegedly occurred long after the deal to purchase the Bashneft stake was finalized; the wealthy cabinet minister was supposedly demanding the relatively paltry sum of $2 million in a multibillion-dollar deal; and Putin apparently was aware of the impending sting operation long before it happened, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Ulyukayev’s boss, only learned of the impending arrest the day before. The list of baffling aspects of the arrest goes on. Although not calling the charges patently false or a provocation (as Ulyukayev claims they are), many commentators nevertheless call the arrest politically significant, if not politically motivated.

    Andrei Kolesnikov says the arrest sends a wake-up call to the elite ahead of the 2018 presidential election. The Stalinesque arrest of a top government official is sure to inspire the “loyalty of fear,” as Eva Hartog and Mikhail Fishman put it. The arrest also bolsters Putin’s image as a corruption crusader, and reeling in a big fish before the 2018 election cycle will definitely score him some points with voters, even though such a high-level corruption scandal will tarnish Russia’s reputation in general. Tatyana Stanovaya writes that Putin’s electoral platforms are always nothing more than slogans (such as fighting corruption) that serve to boost ratings but don’t become part of an overall strategy. With Putin, everything is ad hoc. So could Ulyukayev’s arrest be a shoot-from-the-hip solution to a political issue?

    The other sensational story to come out of Russia this week is that the Russian Supreme Court overturned the sentence of avowed Putin oppositionist and one-time Moscow mayoral candidate Aleksei Navalny in a 2013 embezzlement case. The decision enables him to run for elected office again. The unexpected decision was cause for celebration and suspicion. Some suspect that the Kremlin may actually need its bitter foe to run for president, to give Putin a credible opponent in the election. Others suggest that the Kremlin might be seeking to co-opt him.

    The fact is that Putin is entering what is presumably his last presidential election cycle. This has the Russian elite on edge and preparing for Russia without Putin. What awaits the elite amid the surging tide of populism and antiestablishment sentiment? Should Putin himself be worried about the upcoming election? After all, you can’t get much more establishment than the current Russian regime, right? But perhaps Putin doesn’t have much reason to be afraid. As Yury Saprykin writes somewhat facetiously, Putin turned out to be ahead of the political curve. Trump essentially used the same spin techniques to win the US election that Putin has been using for years in Russia: unsubstantiated statements, fake news and provocative clickbait. Restoring lost “greatness” is in vogue these days, and Putin is becoming something of a cult figure in the eyes of America’s alt-right and Europe’s far-right. Hopefully past greatness doesn’t mean the 1930s for Russia and more late-night arrests.


    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #45

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 7-13, 2016

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    The Shock Felt Round the World: The Trump Victory and Its Reverberations.

    America is definitely the main focus of this week’s news from Russia. In our first feature, Russian commentators give their takes on how Donald Trump achieved his surprising presidential win and what it means for US democracy. Andrei Movchan argues that the sector that won Trump the election was neither the rich nor the poor, but the middle class, led by the small and medium-sized business sector. One observation shared by all of the commentators: The upset of Hillary Clinton, who represents a political dynasty, proved that democracy really does exist in America (although all of the writers acknowledge that Trump’s victory was narrow and that the Electoral College in a few swing states put him over the top).

    Dmitry Oreshkin writes in Novaya gazeta that Trump’s win is part of a “global backlash” exemplified by Brexit, European nationalism and the continuing popularity of Putin in Russia. However, making an implicit contrast with the latter, he concludes: “America has one distinct advantage – it isn’t afraid of making mistakes, since it always has a way of rectifying them through fair elections.”

    Speaking of Russia, how is Trump’s victory likely to affect it? Belying the sanguine tone of the analysts above, Mikhail Fishman writes: “The US political system has failed at its core. The bulwark of liberal democracy is sinking.” He acknowledges that this turn of events is good for Putin (who might “start seeing himself as the first among equals on the global scene”), but laments that it’s bad for Russia: “The hope for change in Russia has just been buried in the voting booths of Florida, Michigan and North Carolina.” Oleg Kashin riffs sarcastically on much the same theme, pointing out similarities between the conservative heartlands of America and Russia (he even uses the term “rednecks” to describe both!). The lesson he draws from Trump’s victory over the liberal Clinton is that the “creative class” – the progressive intellectuals who are numerically in the minority, in both countries – must find a way to connect with the “redneck” majority. He ends on a hopeful note: “The Americans***will likely solve [this problem], and we will look to them and solve it here, too.”

    Coincidentally (or not?), Russia’s most notorious former political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has just published a mission statement for his Open Russia organization that does not take any overt cues from America. In fact, the plan strictly depends on Russia’s domestic trajectory: Specifically, it assumes that the Putin regime will inevitably fall (sooner or later) and that Putin’s successor (no matter who) will fail to move the country forward. This impasse will set the stage for reforms, focused entirely on the domestic scene: a stronger parliament, independent courts and a demonopolized economy, to name a few.

    As for the international scene, Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, makes his own predictions in a Rossiiskaya gazeta interview: “The world today is standing on the threshold of changing from a unipolar to a multipolar world order.*** And this clash between the two geopolitical projects is also evident in US society, which clearly manifested itself during the presidential election campaign.” In other words, Trump’s victory means the US will step back from global military dominance (a stance that Ivashov sees as represented by the Hillary Clinton establishment).

    However, says military analyst Aleksandr Kanshin in an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Trump’s victory will not prompt an “immediate U-turn” in US military policy. Will Trump disband NATO, given his strident criticism of the alliance during his campaign? Hard to say, Kanshin responds. “One can only hope that Russian-US relations would finally improve, including when it comes to global security issues.” Paradoxically, from a Russian standpoint, America’s electoral shakeup could make the world more stable. Stranger things have happened.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2016

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    Issue #44 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #44 Table of Contents

    To the Brink: From the Return of Checkpoint Charlie, to the Point of No Return in Russian-US Relations

    In an article dedicated to the current sad state of Russian-US relations, Dmitry Yevstafyev outlines four layers that comprise a healthy bilateral relationship: political contacts, diplomatic communication, interaction within the format of global institutions and, finally, unofficial contacts between former political “heavyweights” (think Robert McNamara and Yevgeny Primakov). Right now, all four links in the chain are broken. And while Yevstafyev blames “Twitter diplomacy” for ruining the age-old art of expert negotiators hammering out solutions away from the prying eyes of social media, it seems the author most laments the overall loss of our ability to communicate. Even in the 1970s, cold war confrontation proceeded along clearly established ground rules. The current situation is more reminiscent of the 1950s, “when Soviet and US tanks faced off near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and various scenarios for delivering preventive nuclear strikes were discussed.”

    In fact, with the threat of nuclear war looming larger than ever, the UN First Committee has approved a measure to ban nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t look like the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals are about to step back from the brink. Addressing a lack of trust between Russia and the US, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev laid the blame squarely at Washington’s door: “We cannot help but wonder what sort of categories Washington thinks in by placing Russia on a par with ISIS and the Ebola virus in its National Security Strategy.”

    Yet according to Aleksandr Golts, Moscow is hardly interested in coming to terms with Washington on nuclear weapons, since its nuclear arsenal remains the Kremlin’s main foreign policy tool. Whether it’s designing next-generation nuclear subs or leaking the allegedly “secret” Status‑6 nuclear weapon (as it did last year), Moscow is leaning heavily on one of the few tools left at its disposal. And just in case anyone thinks this is a bluff, Vladimir Putin has been hard at work dismantling “his earlier reputation as a rational man by constantly hinting that if push comes to shove, he is prepared to ‘press the button.’ ” Of course, using nuclear weapons to achieve superpower status instead lands Russia in the same camp as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But, as Golts warns, “When Kim Jong Un blackmails his neighbors with a few [nuclear] warheads, the result could be a regional catastrophe. Moscow’s nuclear blackmail could destroy the entire planet.”

    Could it be that Russian leaders are finally starting to come to their senses? First, during last week’s meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin clearly struck a conciliatory tone, stating that Russia has no intention of attacking anyone. Then, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that if controversial new antiterrorism legislation and the Law on Foreign Agents are being perceived so negatively by the public, then “for us, the government, that is a serious shortcoming.” Are these signs of a thaw? Hardly, believes political analyst Nikolai Petrov. “Instead of offering something positive, you first scare people with a bigger negative. . . . Then you dial back the negative, which makes them happy – not because you gave them anything, but because you took away less,” he explains.

    One big negative in the CIS this week is the Ukrainian public’s reaction to the asset declarations filed by Ukrainian officials. While the average Ukrainian is struggling to pay for groceries and other basic items, the powers that be are rolling in unprecedented luxury. Some of the items declared include: a church; a “ticket to space” worth $1.5 billion; as well as “collections of paintings, carpets, diamonds, antiques, yachts and airplanes, dozens of apartments and hundreds of hectares of land.” The public’s patience is clearly wearing thin, and “bitter sarcasm among the public could turn to aggression,” warns political expert Andrei Zolotaryov. So that ticket to space might come in handy after all.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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