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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #26

    Letter From the Editors: June 22-28, 2015

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    Issue #26 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #26 Table of Contents

    To Fear or Not to Fear, That Is the Question.

    Unfounded or not, there seems to be plenty of fear to go around these days. This week, many Russian commentators and analysts were preoccupied by looming threats both hypothetical and real, be it ISIS, China, “color revolutions,” Ukraine or the US.

    ISIS, the most realistic threat in the lineup, is making inroads in Russia’s neighboring Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan, where, according to Arkady Dubnov, Moscow’s failure to ensure that the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan has a voice in local politics is creating a breeding ground for radical Islam. This virulent strain of Islam is also on the rise in the Caucasus region of Russia. Some Muslim youth in Russia, disillusioned with the sociopolitical and economic situation at home, see a brighter future in the ranks of ISIS, says Aleksandr Shumilin.

    China, next on the list of bugaboos and the subject of the third feature in this issue, is a bit of an enigma. The popular perception is that China is taking advantage of Russia’s relative weakness to make expansive inroads in Russia’s Far East. This is largely a misconception, say analysts Fyodor Lukyanov and Georgy Neyaskin, even though reports that a Chinese agricultural firm is about to lease large swathes of Russian farmland in Transbaikal Territory do little to assuage such fears.

    Color revolutions. Russia’s anti-Western spin doctors see them everywhere, and the West – the US in particular – is inevitably behind them, in their opinion. The latest country facing the threat of “revolution” is Armenia, where planned hikes in electricity prices are being met with fierce public opposition in the capital. Denis Tukmakov notes that it is students, not elderly pensioners – the social group most likely to be affected by the plan – who are gathering in the streets. What’s more, they are making uncomfortable connections between the rate increases and Russia, which is certainly direct evidence that the West is behind this, according to the journalist.

    Of course, when it comes to fears, the biggest is always open war, which these days is increasingly (and alarmingly) a real concern of top brass in NATO and Russia. A recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers ended with Russia and the alliance trading accusations of military posturing. In response to what it sees as increased Russian aggression, the North Atlantic organization is more than doubling the size of its rapid response force, and the US is positioning heavy military hardware in the Baltic states.

    This, of course, comes in response to perceived Russian interference in Ukraine, a country that is a hotbed for all sorts of fears, real and imagined. The newly appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Province, Mikhail Saakashvili, is concerned that separatist sentiment is rising in Bessarabia and will result in the declaration of yet another “people’s republic” in Ukraine. Meanwhile, former rebel commanders of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics are saying that they don’t rule out a complete collapse of the Minsk agreements that are precariously preventing all-out war between Ukraine, Russia and the West.

    All-out war is very much on the mind of Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who recently accused the US of wishing that Russia did not exist. Is he off his rocker, or is he right to be shaking in his boots (perhaps more from Russia’s inadequacies than anything else, according to Tatyana Stanovaya)? Actually, he might not be the most delusional of Russia’s paranoid security officials. A certain Russian major general who claimed to have developed technologies to read the minds of Western leaders once said he discovered in the brain of then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright a pathological hatred of all Slavs. I don’t know what is more disturbing: that he made such claims or that they are earnestly believed by some Russians, including among the upper echelons of power.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #25

    Letter From the Editors: June 15-21, 2015

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    Issue #25 Letter From the Editors
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    Democracy May Be the Worst Form of Government – But What’s the Worst Form of Democracy?

    “Democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill is alleged to have said – “except for all the others.” Ukrainian voters are hungry for any taste of democracy as they gear up for the first local elections since the 2013-2014 Independence Square rallies. Expectations are high. Yet already there is evidence that the game is being rigged. Ukraine’s Opposition Bloc released a statement this week that it had been denied registration in its three strongest provinces. “Instead of protecting democratic standards, we are seeing [the authorities] derailing honest elections even before the start of the election campaign,” the statement concludes.

    Russians’ electoral expectations are not nearly so high after 15 years of the de facto rule of Vladimir Putin. With the 2016 Duma elections approaching (likely earlier than expected, given a recent decision by lawmakers to bump them up from December to September), commentators like Tatyana Stanovaya take it for granted that any serious competitors will be sidelined: “[Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s] Party of Progress was denied registration. The Republican Party of Russia/People’s Freedom Party may lose it if Navalny decides to back them.”

    Russians view the presidential race in a similar light. In fact, on the heels of the announcement of the early Duma vote, former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin made the bold suggestion: “If we are moving up the Duma elections, why not move up the presidential election and announce a new reform program that will be easier to carry out with a mandate of trust?” Trust in whom? Vladimir Vladimirovich, of course. In effect, Kudrin was acknowledging that Putin would win no matter what!

    So then, Stanovaya asks in a separate article, why talk about reforms at all? Her answer: to please the West, creating the illusion that it’s worth investing in Russia (politically and economically). Ivan Sukhov, however, speculates that the only move that would spur rapprochement with the West is instituting “free elections” in 2018. Yet he immediately rejects the possibility out of hand: “Transferring power in that way would rank as a major accomplishment for Russia*** Unfortunately, that is an unimaginable scenario for the ruling regime.” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the West’s favorite Russian dissident, made a similar point in a speech this week at the Atlantic Council.

    But this week’s news also reminds us that Europe and the US are quite unperturbed by the lack of democracy in some other corners of the world. Witness the international credibility of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan almost a decade longer than Putin has ruled Russia. Nazarbayev’s recent reelection gives him carte blanche to create any law he wants. The most recent is one empowering Kazakh peacekeepers to go anywhere in the world to join UN peacekeeping contingents (including, theoretically, Ukraine).

    Speaking of Ukraine – if one believes the conjectures of the Lugansk press service, the US convinced Poroshenko to appoint ex-Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili as governor of Odessa Province. America supposedly hoped its longtime Georgian ally would stir up the frozen conflict in Transnistria, Odessa’s neighbor just inland from the Black Sea. Recall that weeks ago, Ukraine already suspended military cooperation with Moscow, which meant blocking transport of troops and supplies to reinforce Russian forces in the controversial Moldovan republic.

    Could these recent moves by Ukraine be part of what Russian hard-liners call America’s attempts to “export democracy” to Eastern Europe? Or is it really exporting something else? Here is what Russian Federation Communist Party veteran Gennady Zyuganov has to say: “[The US] is the giant headquarters of the power of ‘global capital’ that is seeking to dominate the entire world: transnational financial and economic organizations whose goal is to control all institutions ensuring the national sovereignty of individual countries.”

    We can’t help asking: Is this what Churchill had in mind when he said “democracy”?

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #24

    Letter From the Editors: June 8-14, 2015

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    Issue #24 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #24 Table of Contents

    Putin Courts the European Media; Poroshenko Survives First Year in Office; and Igor Strelkov Prepares for His Close-Up

    While there’s still some disagreement as to who actually coined the phrase “any publicity is good publicity,” the idea has certainly stood the test of time, and notoriety has made its share of showbiz careers. It seems that politics is no exception. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, sat down with the editor of Italy’s Corriere della Sera for a personal interview, and he didn’t hold back. In response to the rather rudimentary question of what he regrets most, the Russian leader stated: “Apparently God has shaped my life in such a way that I have no regrets.” According to Vedomosti, Putin is basically copying the Beatles and saying that he’s bigger than Jesus (since in Christian doctrine, only Christ is without sin – and thus without regret). Or could the Russian leader be sending a message to the West: I am not responsible for my actions, since they are dictated from above?

    Nevertheless, European audiences are unlikely to buy Putin’s “explanation,” writes Nezavisimaya gazeta. Both the European political elite and the general public see Russia’s actions in Ukraine as taking away the territory of a sovereign state, which is considered completely unacceptable. So Putin’s words are fated to fall on deaf ears.

    This hardly means that the Russian establishment is about to stop making outlandish statements (whether they’re publicity stunts or bona fide threats). For instance, both Duma deputies and Federation Council members this week spoke about the possibility of giving the president authorization to deploy Russian troops anywhere that Russian citizens may be in trouble. According to Federation Council member Igor Morozov, “This would be a justified international operation to maintain peace in eastern Ukraine.” The initiative comes in response to Ukraine’s Supreme Rada passing a law allowing the presence of foreign troops on its soil as part of international operations.

    Not to be outdone in the media field, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko held a press conference of his own, where he vowed to return the Crimea, and block off the restive regions of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces. Now marking his first year in office, the Ukrainian president fared better than could be expected, writes Vedomosti. Yes, war is still raging in the country’s east, the economy is in shambles and “indignant compatriots rally periodically for various reasons.” Nevertheless, Poroshenko remains far more popular than any of his rivals. He has also managed to prevent further loss of territory to the rebels, and more or less stabilized the hryvnia. And despite all the bellicose political rhetoric, Poroshenko also managed to make inroads with Russia on energy issues. So all in all, the Ukrainian president is having a good year.

    Not everyone can boast the same successes. Igor Strelkov, “the superstar of the first months of the Donetsk war,” looks to be at the end of his 15 minutes of fame. Despite the media rumor mill suggesting he may become a State Duma candidate for Novorossia, Strelkov seems to have fallen out of favor with the Kremlin, writes Oleg Kashin. Apparently, the Kremlin was behind his quiet departure from Donetsk last year. It would seem the man who won the media spotlight with claims that he “pulled the trigger of war” in eastern Ukraine has gone too far. Maybe there is such a thing as bad publicity after all.

    Xenia Grushetsky,

    Managing Editor



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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #23

    Letter From the Editors: June 1-7, 2015

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    Issue #23 Letter From the Editors
    Issue #23 Table of Contents

    Letter From the Editors: June 1-7, 2015

    What Do Kremlin Spin Doctors Have in Common With Vladimir Nabokov? Hint: It Isn’t ‘Transparent Things’ Because You Need a Net to Catch Them.

    Give Up? Think butterflies. That’s right, Vladimir Nabokov’s love for chasing down members of the Lepidoptera order is apparently shared by Kremlin propagandists. According to political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, Moscow frequently uses “butterfly effect” logic to link current events to past actions that in the Kremlin’s calculus invariably have very little to do with Russia and a whole lot to do with the West. For example, while the West blames the downing in Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on a missile fired from a Russian Buk missile system, Moscow takes a step back and puts greater blame for the tragedy on the West’s purportedly provocative actions that prompted armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in the first place – i.e., its alleged support for the coup that ousted Viktor Yanukovich. Stanovaya writes that the Kremlin looks for justifications of its “crimes” in the past actions of others, no matter how far back in history it has to go to find Western “butterflies.”

    Another case in point of the Kremlin’s selective interpretation of history is a recently released Russian film that Czechs and Slovaks say whitewashes the Warsaw Pact’s 1968 occupation of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. I guess righting historical wrongs sometimes involves a little historical revisionism.

    Of course, Russia’s leaders say it is the West that is guilty of manipulating the facts and seeking to rewrite history. State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin offers us a crash course on spin-doctoring (the Western variety, naturally) with a commentary hot on the heels of a leak that exposed a blacklist of Western individuals banned from entering Russia, apparently because they have publicly badmouthed the Kremlin. According to him, the West’s propaganda is barefaced and crude, consisting of outright lies intended to defame Russia.

    Subjectivism also seems to be prevalent in the characterization of events in eastern Ukraine. This week saw renewed fighting between rebels and Ukrainian troops in Maryinka, a town near Donetsk. Information about what prompted the latest flare-up is scarce and contested. Ukrainian authorities are saying that they repelled a massive offensive by Russian-backed rebels, while the self-declared people’s republics are saying – well, numerous and contradictory things: Initially they said there was no fighting, then they said that there was fighting, but it was the Ukrainian troops who were on the offensive, and finally they said that rebel troops were not attacking Maryinka, since they had been in that town all along!

    Moscow is also at a loss about how to cover up its military activity in Ukraine. Although Moscow officially denies that Russian troops are involved in the fighting there, scores of Russian troops are mysteriously disappearing and dying. Vladimir Putin sought to maintain this mystery by recently making information about all deaths of its military personnel, including in peacetime, a state secret. That decision does not sit well with his own Human Rights Council, which is vowing to take court action against the decree.

    It remains to be seen whether the HRC will also go to bat for Russia’s increasingly pressured NGOs, which in addition to being labeled “foreign agents” can now be deemed “undesirable organizations” under new legislation. According to Vladimir Ryzhkov: “With this law, the Russian government has sent a clear signal that it will no longer tolerate any more unauthorized activities or initiatives in the political, economic, cultural, moral or public life of the country.” You can be sure that this turn of events has a Western butterfly behind it somewhere – the Kremlin’s lepidopterists just need to hunt it down and give it a fitting exotic name.

    Matthew Larson,

    Translator/Copy Editor

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  • Current Digest of the Russian Press: Letter From the Editors #22

    Letter From the Editors: May 25-31, 2015

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    Issue #22 Letter From the Editors
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    When Is a Russian Soldier Not a Russian Soldier?

    When he’s in Ukraine, apparently. This week’s news brings a poignant twist to the continuing Rashomon tale of Russian military personnel fighting (or not) in the Donetsk Basin. Two wounded Russian men captured by Ukrainian fighters near the embattled town of Schastye gave an interview to Novaya gazeta’s Pavel Kanygin. They both confirmed their status as Russian reconnaissance troops, and did not seem surprised to learn that the Ukrainian government was accusing them of terrorism. However, they were surprised (or at least skeptical) to hear that the Russian Defense Ministry claimed they had not been on active duty since December 2014. What’s more, one of them (Aleksandr Aleksandrov) was shocked to learn that his wife had publicly confirmed the military’s statement on Russian TV. In addition, both men were dismayed that the Russian Embassy in Ukraine had not sent any representatives to visit them in the hospital.

    To complicate the picture further, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree this week expanding the category of classified information: It now includes Russian troop casualties during peacetime. But it’s unclear how this new wrinkle affects reportage like the above interview: If Moscow does not acknowledge the two captured men as active Russian soldiers, could Kanygin or Novaya gazeta be punished for disclosing classified data? Journalist Mikhail Tishchenko surmises that the new legislation may protect state officials from probing questions about Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict (such as those asked by opposition politician Boris Nemtsov before his untimely death).

    Whatever the Kremlin may or may not officially acknowledge, former separatist leader Igor Strelkov released a resounding public statement this week that leaves no room for doubt: “In the imagination of our homespun ‘geopoliticians,’ Moscow and Washington are using someone else as a cat’s paw in a game where Ukraine’s territory and status are at stake. Meanwhile***Russia’s growing involvement in the conflict is not admitted, which flies in the face of the facts.” Strelkov says the continuation of the Donetsk Basin conflict furthers the interests of all parties involved. Moscow is counting on its covert support of the separatists to weaken Ukraine, forcing it to make major concessions, such as federalization and/or recognition of the Crimea as part of Russia. Meanwhile, Kiev is counting on the West to help it wear down Moscow. The West (particularly the US) wins out either way, as long as the conflict drags on: It can threaten Russia with economic collapse, while also using Ukraine as an expendable bargaining chip.

    In the meantime, tensions between Moscow and Kiev are spreading elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In response to Kiev’s recent decision to stop allowing transit of Russian military supplies to Transnistria via Ukraine, Russian peacekeeping forces are now conducting exercises to prepare for a possible “unfreezing” of the 20-year standoff in that region. A military source in Moscow told Nezavisimaya gazeta that the Defense Ministry has “information about a certain plan for the forceful liquidation of Transnistria, supposedly developed by US special services with the participation of the Ukrainian, Moldovan and Romanian defense ministries.”

    Where does this possible escalation leave the rest of Europe, caught between US aspirations and Russia’s plans for the post-Soviet space? Fyodor Lukyanov predicts that Poland will play a key role in the EU’s internal dynamics and external relations. Now that conservative Andrzej Duda has won the latest presidential election, relations with Russia will remain tight-lipped; Warsaw’s attitude toward Kiev will grow less sympathetic; and the mood of “Euroskepticism” will threaten cohesion within the EU as Warsaw asserts its sovereignty. Lukyanov concludes: “All in all, Europe is heading into another suspenseful round of internal conflict – and the outcome will affect both the EU’s integration model and its relations with Russia.”

    Laurence Bogoslaw,

    Copy Editor

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