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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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    Issue #50 Letter From the Editors
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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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