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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #38

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 14-20, 2015

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    Issue #38 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #38 Table of Contents

    Teach Your Children Well: This Week’s Lessons on Propaganda, Perception and Persuasion

    Commentator Aleksandr Shmelyov encourages us to look ahead to the aftermath of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine. Eventually, he writes, Kiev will be forced to reabsorb the separatist regions. But how can Ukraine peacefully integrate their inhabitants, most of whom are ethnically Russian? He makes an innovative suggestion: Try to turn them into “different Russians.” “Not imperialists, not xenophobes, not paternalists, not proponents of a ‘strong hand,’ but residents of a united Europe, no different from any other European people – except that they speak Russian.” The tools that Shmelyov recommends for this purpose are new media messages to counter Moscow’s propaganda; new songs, poems, books and movies to inculcate a different view of history; and “civic education in Russian-speaking schools, teaching children from the early grades how to be free citizens in a democratic state.”

    Call it what you will – indoctrination, spin, brainwashing or plain old “teaching” – but Nadezhda Arbatova’s piece in Nezavimisaya gazeta sums up the messages that Shmelyov wishes to counteract: “The annexation of the Crimea is now perceived by Russians as a perfectly legitimate move, and the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West over Ukraine are perceived as an attempt by the EU and the US to ‘bring Russia to its knees,’ to destabilize our country ‘by staging a color revolution through their agents of influence.’ We are witnessing unprecedented anti-Western sentiment in Russia today, largely as a result of media hype. Even the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin era was not so anti-Western.”

    The rest of this week’s news from Russia has plenty of other examples of the power of words – both positive and negative – especially when they resonate through the echo chamber of the mass media. Take, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he is sending military hardware and training specialists to help the Syrian government combat ISIS. Dmitry Drobnitsky, writing for Izvestia, portrays this decision as rising above conflicts with the West: “In essence, Russia is doing exactly what the US was doing/planning to do – providing arms and training, as well as political support. The only difference is that [Russia] is betting on much more reliable and determined forces than the US. . . . Assad’s forces and Shiite militants are clearly ready and willing to fight, given the proper support. This [decision] was a smart gambit that immediately paid off. It is hardly a coincidence that on the same day, London announced that is ready to see Bashar Assad as part of a transitional government.”

    Rossiiskaya gazeta chimed in with a media statement of its own by publishing an interview with the Syrian president himself. The fact that the piece ran to more than 5,000 words speaks for itself. We selected only a portion to translate into English, but it contains plenty of choice words from Assad about the messages that Europe is sending out to the world: “Western countries are crying over refugees with one eye and looking at them through the crosshairs with the other. The fact is these people have left Syria mainly because of terrorists, for fear of their lives and the consequences of terrorism. . . . As a result, people are fleeing from terrorism and looking for an opportunity to make a living in any other part of the world. This is why the West cries over refugees, while at the same time supporting terrorists since the outbreak of the crisis.”

    Another message on terrorism comes out of Tajikistan: President Emomali Rakhmon and the Prosecutor General’s Office have outlawed the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, with the help of a media campaign claiming that party members had attempted a military coup and supported terrorists. But experts like Aleksei Malashenko maintain that the IRPT was actually a bulwark against religious fanaticism and radicalism; hence, Rakhmon may be leaving himself exposed to truly dangerous extremists. For those who are tempted to use the power of words to create enemies, perhaps this is a teachable moment.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #37

    Letter From the Editors: Sept. 7-13, 2015

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    Issue #37 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #37 Table of Contents

    With Allies Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

    Why can’t we be friends? That’s the question asked by everyone from the band War to the cat Leopold from an old Russian cartoon series (the Soviets’ answer to “Tom and Jerry”). Of course, sometimes friendships can be one-sided, as may be the case with Russia and China. President Putin was one of the many dignitaries who visited Beijing this week to help commemorate China’s victory over Japan in World War II. There was no shortage of military hardware on display, as Beijing seems to have taken a page out of Moscow’s book on rallying the masses, writes Novaya gazeta commentator Pavel Felgengauer. Putin’s presence at the parade was designed to show support for Russia’s increasingly powerful Asian neighbor, but was that a smart move? According to Dmitry Travin, “an alliance with [China] would resemble an alliance between a rider and a horse – and the one on top would definitely be not us.” Doesn’t sound like a friendship of equals.

    Meanwhile, Sevastopol governor Sergei Menyailo seems to be trying his best to show allegiance to the federal center. In an Izvestia opinion piece, the official attributed most of the current discontent in Russia’s latest territorial addition to (a) inefficiencies and corruption inherited from the peninsula’s Ukrainian past and (b) outside forces working to bring discord to the region. But aside from a few subversives, everything is just fine in the Naval city; even “the Crimean Tatars are largely in solidarity with the rest of the population of the Crimea and view Russia favorably.” Time will tell just how true those words are.

    Kiev also attempted to show unity this week – at least in front of television cameras. Commentators attribute this to President Poroshenko’s attempts to soothe the general public following a series of high-profile quarrels within the government. For instance, when Odessa Province head (and recent transplant from Georgia) Mikhail Saakashvili accused the Yatsenyuk government of continuing to serve the oligarchs at the expense of the public, businessman and former Donetsk Province governor Igor Kolomoisky joined the fray. Meanwhile, a petition to appoint Saakashvili prime minister was posted on the Ukrainian president’s Web site. To smooth things over, the government announced a fast-track increase in social subsidies to over 12 million Ukrainians, while President Poroshenko went on television to state that destabilization only plays into the hands of Ukraine’s enemies. He also reassured the public that the ruling parliamentary coalition remains viable, despite the departure of the Radical Party.

    The Ukrainian president’s standing is strengthening ahead of the regional elections, writes Sergei Zhiltsov. In a lot of ways, this is due to a shift in public sentiment, which once again favors more moderate parties instead of radical forces. Nevertheless, the ceasefire in the Donetsk Basin continues to hang on by a thread, since parties to the conflict once again failed to sign an agreement on withdrawing from the front line tanks and weapons with a caliber greater than 100 millimeters.

    All of the above is the result of the existing system of global order coming apart at the seams, writes Russia’s former foreign minister Igor Ivanov. He attributes this to the fact that world leaders failed to establish a new system following the end of the cold war, as was the case after World War II. In the early 1990s, some politicians failed to grasp the significance of the changes happening around them, while for others, achieving “immediate victories with little effort proved to be an irresistible temptation.” According to Ivanov, crises have historically given rise to new opportunities. There’s no time like the present.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #36

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2015

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    Issue #36 Letter From the Editors
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    ‘Three, Seven, Ace. Three, Seven, Queen.’

    As is usually the case in high-risk games, the stakes are high and the odds are long for the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as they place bets to buttress their own positions.

    Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko recently made a high-stakes gamble in the Ukraine crisis by proposing a Constitutional reform bill that he hopes will bring the conflict in his country closer to resolution. However, legislative approval of the bill met with a protest in Kiev and a collapse of the ruling coalition. A group of about 1,000 angry citizens who think the new Constitution gives too much autonomy and credibility to the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics gathered outside the Supreme Rada building in a rally that eventually turned violent, leaving scores wounded and at least one person dead. After the controversial vote in the Supreme Rada, the Radical party announced that it was leaving the ruling coalition. Who knows if other parties will follow suit. At any rate, political acrimony is high in Kiev as politicians accuse each other of using the violence to press their own agendas.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing some gambling of his own. According to Dmitry Butrin, he is recklessly betting that oil prices will eventually rise and Russia will somehow miraculously rekindle economic growth without having to meet the criteria for lifting the Western sanctions. That’s not going to happen, the columnist writes. Aleksei Malashenko and Yevgeny Gontmakher concur. They say the writing is on the wall: Russia is heading for a meltdown if reforms aren’t implemented. The economy is set to tank, and the authoritarian regime is simply going to keep on tightening the screws. Meanwhile, the gap between Russia and the rest of the developed world continues to widen.

    Putin’s gamble that a strategic political and economic partnership with China will replace tainted relations with the West will not pay off either, writes Vladislav Inozemtsev. None of Russia’s oil and gas deals with China are panning out the way Moscow had hoped. Moreover, this bilateral interaction benefits Beijing significantly more than it does Moscow, the analyst says. Besides, Russia’s foreign policy moves are too irresponsible for China to lend Moscow its support, so it looks as if Putin’s dreams about a possible great Russian-Chinese alliance will ultimately fizzle out.

    Vladimir Frolov speculates that Putin may have another card up his sleeve if things get too hot for him. He may be betting on handing over the presidential baton to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev yet again, perhaps as early as next year. The idea is that a President Medvedev 2.0 would bring a “reset 2.0
     in relations with the West. Although a long shot, the move might be one of the few ways Putin can save face.

    Another perennial gambler in the post-Soviet space, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, recently freed six political prisoners in a move calculated to curry favor and funding from the West, and get it to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election, former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich tells The New Times. In other words, this is just another illustration of Lukashenko’s traditional betting strategy of placing stakes on opposing players – the West and Russia – in an effort to reap maximum benefit for himself.

    Each of these leaders can only hope that their bet on what they think is an ace doesn’t turn out to be actually the queen of spades. You can never truly be certain your bet has won until all the cards are revealed. Just ask Aleksandr Pushkin’s hapless protagonist.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #34-35

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 17-30, 2015

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    Issue #34-35 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #34-35 Table of Contents

    Who Wants to Live in an Institution? Russia Steps Forward With New Brand of ‘Marxism.’

    Moscow has moved way past Karl Marx – we’re talking Groucho Marx here. The prolific comedian is credited with the remark: “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” Aside from the fact that President Putin ended his 31-year marriage to Lyudmila Putina in 2014, the news that has come out of Russia these last two weeks seems to show that Putin and his elite circle don’t want to live in any kind of institutions – the rule of law, impartial investigations, independent courts, fair elections, you name it.

    As a recent case in point, Estonian security official Eston Kohver was just put on trial for espionage and illegal crossing of the Russian border last year – despite evidence from the scene, which (as Yulia Latynina elucidates) indicates that Kohver was pelted with stun grenades on the Estonian side and then dragged across the border.

    Sergei Aleksashenko juxtaposes the Kohver situation with other recent cases that he sees as “Kafkaesque” miscarriages of justice: The Central Electoral Commission barred Russian opposition parties from local elections. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in the Crimea. Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko is being tried in Russia for allegedly abetting the killing of two journalists. Human rights activist Aleksandr Polukhin and his family were given criminal sentences for trafficking opium. Aleksashenko’s diagnosis: “The biggest problem of the Russian economy (and Russia in general) is the intentional destruction of fundamental institutions that protect property rights.”

    Speaking of property rights – in a telling contrast to the above punitive measures, Yevgenia Vasilyeva (remember her: former defense minister Anatoly Serdykov’s mistress?), charged with embezzling $58 million in state military property, has just been paroled after only 20 days in a penal colony. In the words of Presidential Human Rights Council member Andrei Babushkin: “The fact that she was released that soon . . . is completely surreal.”

    Of course, Russia is not the only country bending the rules of legality. Belarussian oppositionist Nikolai Statkevich was just released from prison after being locked up in 2010 for protesting the results of the last presidential election. Hours after his release, Statkevich glibly said that Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko had freed him (along with five other political prisoners) because he was out of money. In other words, this was a political bid to get new loans from the West. What’s more, NG’s Anton Khodasevich commented wryly that Lukashenko’s splashy display of respect for human rights will probably ensure that foreign observers will give their seal of approval to the upcoming presidential election this fall, which batka is sure to win.

    Why should he care what the rest of the world thinks about fair elections? As Fyodor Lukyanov explains it, the ideology of domestic civil liberties and human rights has been driving Western expansion for decades – a process that continues to this day. (Witness newly elected Polish President Andrzej Duda’s platform of strengthening ties with NATO.) Ironically, Europe and the US came to emphasize their “humanitarian” ideology in the wake of a series of foreign policy failures: America’s defeat in Vietnam, France’s defeats in Algeria and other colonies, and Britain’s loss of its status as a world power. “The unrest of the 1960s was beneficial to the West, leading not to revolution, but to a strengthened social foundation for governments due to the inclusion of new groups in the establishment.”

    As we watch Ukraine struggle over how (and whether) to include separatist constituents in its “establishment,” and shake our heads over abuses of the law in Russia and elsewhere, perhaps we can imagine that somewhere in the afterworld, the spirit of Marx is laughing. Groucho, that is.

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #33

    Letter From the Editors: Aug. 10-16, 2015

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    Issue #33 Letter From the Editors
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    The Time Has Come to Talk of Many Things: From Ham Sandwiches to Saudi Kings

    As hostilities broke out again with unprecedented fervor in eastern Ukraine, analysts are once again playing Cassandra and predicting an imminent collapse of the Minsk agreements. Some have grown disappointed with Germany and France as the agreements’ enforcers, and are calling for an “Atlantic” format that would include Ukraine, Russia and the US, writes Vedomosti.

    The Crimea also remains a bone of contention in the settlement process. While Russia sees the peninsula’s accession to Russia as a done deal, the international community will never accept that view, writes Grigory Golosov. One option is to hold a second referendum in the Crimea – this time under the auspices of an international organization like the UN – to resolve the matter. Russia’s strategy of stubbornly blocking any resolution relating to the Crimea isn’t helpful, he says – as is Kiev’s apparent lack of strategy per se when it comes to the peninsula. Meanwhile, as Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny once famously said, the Crimea isn’t a ham sandwich “that you can take and then give it back.” The views of its residents also need to be taken into consideration.

    At the moment, even Moscow seems to be forgetting that the peninsula is home to real people with their own opinions on where they want to belong. According to Yegor Kholmogorov, Russian leaders are forgetting that Sevastopol has a long-standing tradition of defending its interests, as the current media wars in the city of Russian glory indicate. A dispute between Kremlin-appointed governor Sergei Menyailo and Legislative Assembly leader Aleksei Chaly is once again underscoring that Sevastopol refuses to be addressed in the language of ultimatums. And the sooner Moscow realizes that, the better. Meanwhile, insinuations in the Russian media that the protests breaking out in the city indicate that “certain people [in Sevastopol] want to return to being part of Ukraine” is simply insulting.

    Of course, there is no shortage of hurt feelings this week: Russian State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin penned another column, this time drawing attention to a spooky pattern in which various tragedies seem to befall his motherland in the month of August. The fourth most powerful man in Russia sees a sinister plot behind this pattern: Instead of taking to the beach, Western politicians “are busy preparing new provocations for the autumn season and beyond.” These include everything from World War I to the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

    Why not add to the list, writes Vedomosti columnist Dmitry Kamyshev. How about the August putsch of 1991? “After all, it’s obvious that only a global conspiracy could have destroyed the great and powerful Soviet Union, thus bringing about the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Tatyana Stanovaya, for her part, sees the Russian official’s media missive as an indication of Putin’s bruised ego. After the US introduced another round of sanctions, the Kremlin felt stabbed in the back, especially after successfully cooperating with Washington on the Iran nuclear deal.

    Perhaps it’s this paranoia that’s making Moscow experts proceed with caution when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in befriending Russia. After Saudi King Salman dispatched Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman to St. Petersburg, rumors started circulating that Riyadh was looking for a new ally. According to Konstantin Dudarev, with Washington abandoning Riyadh to the whims of fate in the Middle East and shifting focus to China, the Saudi kingdom is shopping around for new friends. But some see this olive branch as a cunning Washington-Riyadh conspiracy to get Russia to change its stance on Syria. It is August, after all: Whom can you trust?

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor

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