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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #5

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2014

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    Issue #5 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #5 Table of Contents

    From Deadlocks and Dismissals to Deals and Dividends: The Decline of ‘Middle Europe’ and the Rise of the Middle East

    Celebrated Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) wrote in his poem “Testament” (1845) that he would not fly up to his eternal rest until the Dnepr River “carries away from Ukraine into the deep blue sea the blood of the enemy.” He did not specify who the enemy was, but given that just a few lines later, he exhorted his fellow Ukrainians to “break [their] chains,” one can guess that he had a certain 19th-century empire in mind. If Shevchenko could see the enmity rife in today’s Ukraine – where the government is under attack from the opposition, which itself is reeling with internal conflicts, as modern-day empires to the East and West fight over the embattled nation – we can’t help sensing that his soul would not be at rest.

    Indeed, the wave of unrest that began in Kiev over two months ago is now reverberating throughout the country and rocking an entire continent. Ukraine was a central item on the agenda of the just-concluded EU-Russia summit. According to commentators, Russia rebuked the EU for sending representatives to attend opposition protests, while European leaders blamed Putin for Ukraine’s refusal to sign a free trade and association agreement with the EU back in November.

    This week, President Yanukovich seemed to be seriously rethinking that move. After agreeing to hold talks with three major opposition leaders, he acquiesced to some crucial demands: He dismissed Nikolai Azarov as prime minister, then dismissed the whole cabinet, as well as calling upon parliament to repeal the repressive laws that had been hurriedly passed on Jan. 16. And yet the protests continue. Some analysts, such as Leonid Radzikhovsky and Maksim Yusin, say that a genuine revolution is under way – one in which the common people no longer accept the legitimacy of the political system as a whole. Yulia Latynina argues that the system is falling apart through its own incompetence: She calls Yanukovich and his circle small-time criminals who don’t know how to make strategic decisions.

    In another article, Latynina gives more credit to the Russian authorities, who she claims have exerted pressure on private cable companies to squeeze out the independent Dozhd TV channel. In apparent confirmation of this claim, Russian prosecutors announced that they were investigating Dozhd in connection with possible charges of extremism, for asking the controversial question in a viewer poll: “Should Leningrad have been surrendered [during World War II] to save hundreds of thousands of lives?”

    Russia does not seem bent on surrendering any influence anywhere these days. Gazprom is considering investing in oil and gas field development in Israel; Russian ships (along with their Chinese counterparts) are maintaining a presence in the Mediterranean, and will apparently stick around even after the transport operation to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons is finished; and Moscow and Tehran are negotiating a deal to exchange Iranian oil for Russian “goods,” which may well include weapons.

    This increase of influence in the Middle East may support Fyodor Lukyanov’s contention that the main locus of global economic and political importance is no longer the so-called “middle Europe” – i.e., the former Soviet bloc nations that declared their independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lukyanov sympathizes with these countries – saying that they have suffered from being objects of external confrontation – but also faults them for provoking such conflict in the hope of reaping political dividends from their more powerful neighbors. He cites Kiev as the main example. Perhaps if Ukraine builds itself up as an independent nation state, as Lukyanov recommends, it can finally “break the chains” of which Shevchenko wrote many years ago.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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

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

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    Issue #4 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #4 Table of Contents

    Yanukovich’s Long-Term Memory Issues, a New Image for Khodorkovsky, and Shinzo Abe’s Sochi Fever

    Once bitten, twice shy, as the old saying goes. In the case of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who still remembers the humiliating (for him) events of Ukraine’s 2004 “orange revolution” all too well – it makes for an itchy trigger finger. At least that’s how some experts are explaining the unprecedented crackdown in Kiev on protests that have been going on for two months now. This week, a new line has been crossed – at least two people are dead. The opposition says five. Whatever the actual tally, blood has been spilled and the situation is spinning out of control.

    Party of Regions loyalist Vadim Kolesnichenko continued to toe the party line, accusing outside forces of instigating the deadly events in Kiev in order to turn Ukraine into another Yugoslavia. Another politician, former foreign minister Vladimir Ogryzko, lashed out at the European Union for closing its eyes, “thus encouraging despots.” Instead of making impotent statements and sheltering stolen Ukrainian money in their banks, EU countries need to actually do something about the regime’s brutal suppression of its own people, Ogryzko raged in his blog.

    Meanwhile, protesters managed to seize some commanding heights in the provinces, taking control of several administrative buildings. Some regional officials have already agreed to resign.

    Is this the beginning of Ukraine’s breakup as a nation, experts wonder? Unfortunately, there are no mediators in sight. The EU could hardly be called a neutral party to the conflict, writes Sovetskaya Rossia, while Russia has also discredited itself, says expert Sergei Taran. So the world looks on as Ukraine continues to burn.

    It wasn’t all bad news – Yukos co-owner Platon Lebedev became a free man this week. The Russian Supreme Court reduced Lebedev’s sentence to time already served at the prosecution’s request, writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. Of course, there is still the small matter of a 17 billion ruble debt. According to experts, the Kremlin is using this colossal amount of alleged back taxes due to keep Khodorkovsky and Lebedev out of Russia – and out of politics.

    Khodorkovsky’s interview with the New Times – his first since being released in December – continued to generate buzz. Particularly the businessman’s statement that he considers himself a nationalist. Of course, he was quick to explain that he considers nationalism different from “nationalistic chauvinism.” Still, according to Khodorkovsky, loss of territorial sovereignty would be a catastrophe for Russia and must be avoided at all costs – even if it means going to war to retain the North Caucasus. According to expert Vladimir Frolov, Khodorkovsky’s statements are actually an astute political step: By painting himself as a true Russian patriot, he is coopting that initiative from the Kremlin.

    And, of course, no week would be complete without mentioning the Sochi Olympics. While European and American leaders decided to snub Putin and skip out on the opening ceremony, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe is eager for the opportunity to travel to Sochi. Japan’s growing isolation in its territorial disputes with its neighbors – particularly an increasingly mighty China – is making it seek out Moscow as an ally, writes Vasily Golovnin. Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be in attendance, making for some potential awkwardness during the opening ceremony. At least Putin will have some pals to keep him company when the Olympic cauldron is lit.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #1-3

    Letter From the Editors: Jan. 1-19, 2014

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    Issue #1-3 Letter From the Editors
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    Happy New Year! Well, it’s finally here: The much-anticipated 2014 that for the past seven years has been inextricably linked to the word “Sochi” has at last arrived. Yes, after seven years of planning and development, and billions of rubles spent, Sochi 2014 (the XXII Winter Olympic Games) will finally kick off on Feb. 7, 2014. However, with just a few weeks to go before the Opening Ceremony, a string of deadly terrorist attacks in the regions have cast a shadow over an event that Russia’s leadership had hoped would raise Russia’s international prestige. Instead of thrill and excitement, many in the international community are feeling a sense of trepidation: Will the security precautions be sufficient to ensure the safety of Olympic spectators, or will radical Caucasus militants make good on their threats directed against the Olympics?

    The Sochi Games are not the only thing causing a bit of unease and tension in Russia these days. Russia’s economy failed to meet expectations in 2012-2013 despite a series of measures designed to spark investment, innovation and economic growth. The despairing economic figures have rekindled an intense debate of the early post-Soviet years between social statists and neoliberals. Former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov recently lashed out at Russia’s neoliberals, criticizing what he believes to be their misplaced faith in the power of privatization, limited government and unregulated enterprise in facilitating economic growth. He feels the government ought to be a present force in the economy and pursue a social agenda that promotes the “common good.” In effect, he supports Putin’s rollback of the neoliberal reforms Dmitry Medvedev initiated as president.

    Commentator Andrei Kolesnikov points out that Putin has essentially assumed the prime minister’s role in part to protect the social commitments he made to voters during his 2012 presidential campaign. His efforts to act as a crusader for average Russians in the face of drastic (but perhaps necessary) changes to socially significant budget items – the pension system and the housing and utilities sector, for example – force him to personally address individual problems in the “manual control” mode.

    Overall, 2013 was a good year for Putin. He managed to consolidate his power following the 2012 election protests, defeating many would-be political opponents and taking the wind out of the sails of the opposition movement in the process. In addition, he scored a number of foreign policy victories (including over the US) and succeeded in pushing a number of pet legislative initiatives through the State Duma. However, the big question now is: Can he successfully navigate Russia through the economic storms looming on the horizon in 2014?

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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

    Letter From the Editors: Dec. 16-31, 2013

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    Issue #51-52 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #51-52 Table of Contents

    ‘And the Weak Shall Be Strong’ – Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot, Ukraine and Afghanistan

    Who says you can’t beat the system? After all, no matter how powerful it is, a system has to coexist with its neighbors in order to function effectively. At least, that’s what this week’s news stories from Russia seem to imply.

    No one can say for sure what impelled Russia’s most powerful person to pardon Russia’s most prominent political prisoner (as former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky was known to many in the West) – but here he is, walking free in Berlin after 10 years behind bars. Was Putin inspired by the prospect of improving his international image as the Sochi Olympics approach? Or moved by the reported illness of the prisoner’s aging mother? Or persuaded by canny German Chancellor Angela Merkel (as Yulia Latynina argues – never in doubt, as always)?

    Khodorkovsky says he wouldn’t dare psychoanalyze Putin – but based on past experience, we consider it safe to say the Russian president’s motives were pragmatic, one way or another. Two other celebrity prisoners freed this week – Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot – agree with this assessment in no uncertain terms, calling their release a “laughable” PR move. We wonder if the many hundreds of other prisoners and suspects who are benefitting from a broad-scale amnesty (approved by the State Duma in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution) would say the same?

    Political pragmatism may well also come into play in Russia’s magnanimous offer to Ukraine of a $15 billion subsidy and a steep gas discount worth billions more. For President Yanukovich, however, this looks like a big payoff for the refusal of European Union associate membership that shocked his country just a few short weeks ago.

    Other CIS countries appear to be following Ukraine’s example: For example, as Viktoria Panfilova sees it, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are trying to extract the greatest possible benefit from Russia before they give their consent to join its fledgling Customs Union.

    On the wider world stage, Fyodor Lukyanov gives evidence that shows the growing strength of “middleweight” countries in shaping the geopolitical picture. As a case in point, Yelena Chernenko quotes experts (including Lukyanov) who maintain that Afghanistan is playing Russia and the US off each other as it negotiates terms for its survival after the withdrawal of NATO coalition forces.

    Even a sorrowful note in this week’s news seems to commemorate the rise of the weak over the strong: Russia bid farewell to Mikhail Kalashnikov. Born into a peasant family that was victimized by Stalin’s repressions, Kalashnikov became an inventor who helped build up his country’s military might with the AK‑47 and many other weapons.

    Lost and Found in Translation. An article under “Other Post-Soviet States” describes the creation of the Customs Union as “progressing with some shagginess” (to translate the Russian phrasing word for word). While the expression is certainly evocative, we did not wish to lead our English-speaking readers astray with a “shaggy dog story”! To convey the sense of discord while also retaining the colorful imagery of furry animals, we opted for “raising some hackles.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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