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

    Letter From the Editors: Nov. 10-16, 2014

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    Issue #46 Letter From the Editors
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    Two Presidents in a Boat, to Say Nothing of Ukraine

    “Loneliness and mistrust. Mistrust as the cause of loneliness, and at the same time, its consequence.” Those are the words columnist Andrei Kolesnikov uses to describe Putin’s current state. The same could be said of Russia in general. Finding itself increasingly isolated, Russia seems to be caught in a historical void, stuck between a past that will never return and a future that has failed to materialize. As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stanislav Belkovsky comments that Russia was a victor in the cold war – just like the US and Europe. After all, it was born out of the ruins of the USSR. So what went wrong? Why is the Russian leadership increasingly looking to the past, instead of the future? And who is to blame, Russia or the West? Both, maintains Konstantin Dobrynin. The West failed to welcome Russia into the European family, instead using the former empire’s weakness to its own advantage. Russia, for its part, got lost somewhere in the rubble of the Soviet Union. It failed to create a new identity for itself, hence the growing nostalgia for the past.

    The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics also find themselves increasingly alone. Kiev this week announced it was suspending budgetary payments to the breakaways – meaning pensioners and others in the LPR and DPR who had been receiving social welfare payments will lose all means of support, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. The LPR and DPR leadership was furious with the decision, accusing Kiev of backstabbing its own citizens. According to expert Aleksandr Kazakov, these budget payments were basically the only source of revenue for the quasi-republics.

    To gain recognition, LPR and DPR leaders set off on a “world tour” – or at least, to visit those countries that would have them (i.e., those that have poor relations with the US). That list includes Cuba and Venezuela. The latter recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but will it do the same with Novorossia? Hardly, says political analyst Aleksei Makarkin. Caracas recognized the breakaway Caucasus republics only after Moscow did – and this time, even Russia has yet to give full legitimacy to its pet project in Ukraine. So the LPR and DPR shouldn’t hold their breath.

    Is there a way out of mounting mistrust, loneliness and bitterness? In an interview with Novaya gazeta, Ekho Moskvy radio station’s editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov remains optimistic about Russia’s future. Despite finding himself at loggerheads with the company’s management (Ekho Moskvy is owned by Gazprom Media), Venediktov said he did not see the station being closed down in the near future. He also believes help often comes from unexpected places – such as the ruling elite’s inner circle. As an example, he says both Khrushchev and Gorbachev came from the Politburo. So perhaps Russia’s next reformer is already a familiar face.

    Finally, political analyst Sergei Markov comes to the rescue of yet another lonely soul – US President Barack Obama, who recently suffered a humiliating defeat as Republicans took control of both chambers of the US Congress. In defending Obama’s policies, Markov points out that it’s time Russia paid the US president the respect he’s due. Only then can Russia and the US come together to end the crisis in Ukraine and address other mounting global problems. Ironically, it seems like Obama and Putin have found themselves in the same boat. The question is, what’s their next move?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #44-45

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 27-Nov. 9, 2014

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    Issue #44-45 Letter From the Editors
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    Vox Populi, Vox Nihili.

    Strictly speaking, in a democracy, the people’s most powerful political voice is their vote. In fact, the Russian and Ukrainian words for “voice” and “vote” are the same – golos. But given a chance to express their political preferences at the polls amid turbulent, politically charged times, Ukrainians spoke/voted feebly and rather ambiguously. Indeed, the results of the Oct. 26 Supreme Rada elections took nearly everyone by surprise. Voter turnout was lackluster – a mere 52%, which is much lower than what analysts were predicting. And the Ukrainian president’s party, the Pyotr Poroshenko Bloc, which was expected to cruise to victory with huge margins, instead wound up neck and neck with Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk’s National Front – in terms of the party-list vote, that is. (Yatsenyuk’s party actually won the party-list vote, but Poroshenko’s party came away with 50 seats more than the National Front, thanks to the results of single-seat contests.)

    The new Rada features some fresh and some rebranded faces, political platforms and agendas: Of the more than half-dozen parties with members in the new parliament, only two were represented in the previous convocation. Of course, many of the same faces now have a different party affiliation. For example, some former Party of Regions deputies were reelected on the Opposition Bloc ticket, which proved popular in eastern Ukraine. Samopomoshch [Self-Reliance] turned out to be the dark horse of the election. This center-right, “common sense,” non-Kiev party came in third on a self-styled pro-EU political platform. But perhaps even more notable is the fact that for the first time in 96 years there will be no Communists in Ukraine’s highest lawmaking body. And “orange princess” Yulia Timoshenko’s party narrowly avoided the Communists’ fate. Does this mean Ukrainian’s political tastes may finally be changing? Perhaps, but if you think Ukrainian politics might finally be moving past bitter rivalries and nasty brawls in the Supreme Rada, be warned: Another Ukrainian president-prime minister conflict may be heating up.

    Ukraine’s Supreme Rada elections were not the only political contest that took place in Ukraine in the last two weeks. But while the results of the Rada race were unexpected, the leadership elections in Ukraine’s breakaway regions, the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, were anything but. Incumbent leaders Aleksandr Zakharchenko (DPR) and Igor Plotnitsky (LPR) trounced the “opposition.” Despite the rebel regions’ “concerted efforts” to run a democratic campaign and election, Kiev and the West categorically refuse to recognize the plebiscite, since it violates the Minsk agreements, brokered to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko quickly responded by initiating a process to repeal a law granting special status to certain areas of the Donetsk Basin. Moscow, however, was rather ambiguous in its assessment: It did not openly recognize the statehood of the self-declared republics, but it also used language that could be construed as putting the new leaders there on par with the authorities in Kiev.

    Speaking of vague language, analysts are still trying to decipher Putin’s golos at a recent Valdai Discussion Club forum held in Sochi. At times sounding bellicose and at times conciliatory, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s course of upholding international law, but also of defending Russia’s values, sovereignty and independent stance. In the end, the two contrasting tones – typical of Putin’s sometimes erratic rhetoric – essentially devalued his message. Which Putin is to be believed?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #43

    Letter From the Editors: Oct. 20-26, 2014

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    Issue #43 Letter From the Editors
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    Kremlin Logic: Putin, Russia, Novorossia and Syllogisms

    Classical logic – the kind used by mathematicians and philosophers – teaches that the truth of a statement does not imply the truth of its converse. In other words, even if we admit the validity of the statement “If there is Putin, then there is Russia,” that does not mean we have to accept that “Without Putin, there is no Russia.” However (at the risk of stating the obvious), the logic of politics works very differently from that of math or philosophy. This week, Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin put forward both statements at the 2014 Valdai Club meeting before a roomful of political experts – many of whom apparently accepted the complete package. So do most Russians, according to political analyst Dmitry Badovsky. He says that Volodin’s pronouncement “translated into meaningful language the feelings and opinions of the country’s citizens that have been reflected in every opinion poll in recent months.”

    Indeed, statistics (at least the pro-Kremlin ones) show that a significant majority of Russians still support Putin, and the vast majority support the accession of the Crimea. This support certainly defies the logic of economics: Western sanctions designed to punish Putin’s actions in Ukraine are driving prices higher, and the Crimea (as the newest Russian Federation member) is diverting billions of taxpayer rubles.

    Several politicians interviewed by Nezavisimaya gazeta vociferously proclaim the opposition’s view of where Putin’s policies are guiding Russia. Boris Nemtsov says that the Ukrainian campaign did not accomplish any of the goals the president wanted. Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin claims that Russia has “lost any veneer of civilization.” And Solomon Ginzburg of the Civic Platform party says that the Crimean accession has driven Russia into international isolation.

    But does all of this mean that as long as there is Putin, there will still be “new Russia” ( i.e., Novorossia), too? That question can be answered using another tool of logic: the syllogism. “If Putin, then Russia; Novorossia is part of Russia; therefore, if Putin, then Novorossia.” The only problem is – the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine are not part of Russia (yet). Some experts, such as Maksim Vikhrov, say that the Novorossia project doomed no matter what, especially now that Russia has declared that it is pulling out all its troops. But Yevgeny Kiselyov contends that despite these claims, Western military observers have seen no evidence of such a pullout – which implies that Putin is only trying to placate a war-weary domestic public and a hypercritical international one; therefore, the latest ceasefire is only a pause in a long-drawn-out war with Ukraine.

    Despite these differences of opinion, Aleksei Makarkin comments that Putin and his circle have the emotions of average Russians well under control. “Society doesn’t care right now what’s up with the economy or international positioning. The main thing is self-affirmation and the return of historical lands.”

    From another corner of the Russian Empire’s “historical lands,” Georgy Zedgenidze reports that the elite in Abkhazia are nervous about a new treaty drafted by the Russian side that would officially merge the armed forces of the two territories. The merger would even include border troops, effectively dissolving the boundary between Russia and Abkhazia. Although this situation does not really change the status quo, Sukhumi seems to be pushing back against the embrace of its “Big Brother.”

    Speaking of which – international politics expert Vladislav Inozemtsev explains Moscow’s recent overtures to Beijing as a search for an even bigger “brother” to shelter Russia from Western economic and political pressure. However, says Inozemtsev, it would be wiser for Moscow to diversify its markets: Exclusive reliance on one partner can ultimately be a greater danger.

    But what to do when one feels cornered? The logic of politics is fundamentally different from the logic of math and philosophy.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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