Letter From the Editors

Two major news stories from the summertime continue to dominate the headlines in Russia: the ongoing protests in Belarus after the presidential election, and Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny’s sudden illness that landed him in the hospital. This week’s articles in the Russian press show that Moscow is finally taking clear positions on both these matters – and effectively drawing battle lines between itself and the West.

For example, political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko says that the Russian “propaganda machine” is fully supporting embattled Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, “without allowing for any gray areas.” He explains that these efforts account for a recent uptick in Lukashenko’s popularity ratings among Russian citizens, particularly TV watchers.

Granted, there is some dissent within the ranks of Moscow’s political establishment, says Belarussian political commentator Artyom Shraibman: “Some are going to advocate forcing Lukashenko to step down as soon as possible, and on Russia’s terms. Others are going to support keeping him in power to get as many concessions from him as possible.” However, Nikolai Raisky concludes that Lukashenko’s situation looks quite favorable at the moment, if only for pragmatic reasons.

Solidarity rises from the pragmatic to the idealistic when we read the words of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, in an interview in Argumenty i fakty. Claiming that the Belarussian protests are being led by Western “saboteurs,” Zhirinovsky assures the public that Russia won’t let them “touch a hair on any Belarussian’s head.” Furthermore, he dreams of all Slavic countries banding together for the greater good. “[Russia] will definitely unite with Belarus. We’ll have a single Fatherland from Minsk to Vladivostok, without borders. And in due time, from Warsaw and Kiev to Vladivostok!”

Another big issue on which Russia has taken a definite stance is the case of Navalny, who is still recovering at the Charité hospital in Berlin. Medical experts there report that he was poisoned with the Soviet-made toxin Novichok, whereas those in Omsk, where Navalny was originally treated, say there is no conclusive evidence. Aleksandr Sabayev, chief toxicologist of Omsk Province and the Siberian Federal District, says that Navalny’s sudden pain and loss of consciousness could have been caused by anything: “diets or heavy drinking, . . . stress, fatigue. . .  All sorts of external factors could have led to some sort of rapid deterioration. Even just skipping breakfast.”

On the diplomatic level, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called out the German Embassy for stonewalling a request from Ambassador Sergei Nechayev for hard evidence: “What answer do you think he received from his German counterparts? None. No facts, no data, no formulas, no materials, no findings. Absolutely nothing.”

In this tug of war, the US is clearly taking the word of the German authorities. In fact, Gennady Petrov reports that Congress is considering a “Navalny act” to impose further sanctions on the Russian government.

Moscow, of course, is used to such shows of Western solidarity, but political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov discerns a chink in the transatlantic armor: i.e., the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline that links Russia to Germany. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington are opposing this multinational partnership, thereby putting pressure on Germany to scrap it. However, writes Lukyanov, this attitude is deeply offensive to Berlin’s sovereignty, not to mention its pride.

“As a result, a project that is important to Russia (and Germany) ends up being hostage to increasingly complicated and troubled relationships within the Western community. This is the worst situation possible, because there is nothing Moscow can do about it. The pipeline is becoming a bellwether of relations not just between Russia and Germany, or between Russia and the EU; it reflects the current relationship between the EU and the US.” Following Lukyanov’s logic, Washington’s insistence on Russia as the enemy might convince Moscow that it’s not worth being friends with anyone in the West.